Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Law Won

job-application

(Photo: Krasnopolski/Shutterstock)

Ban the Box: Employing Former Felons Will Improve the Economy and Public Safety

• April 07, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Krasnopolski/Shutterstock)

Lawmakers in 10 states and over 50 cities have already enacted Ban the Box policies, eliminating the check-box that asks about an applicant’s criminal record. It’s time for Congress to follow suit.

Seven years ago, I hired Ron Sanders, an unemployed, single dad with a felony record, to work in a community health center. Like the majority of those who are incarcerated, Ron had been addicted to drugs and homeless. But even when those days were long over and he had completed a college certificate program to become a community health worker, he still couldn’t get a job. He couldn’t even get an interview.

An overwhelming 65 million Americans with criminal records face significant barriers to employment each day. Most applications for employment include a box that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Check the box, and nowadays, the application most likely goes to the trash. In 2009, a team of Princeton and Harvard researchers found that having a criminal record in New York city reduced the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent. It doesn’t matter if you finished serving your time, committed a crime decades ago, or whether the crime would impact the quality of your work.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the background check industry skyrocketed. In 2007, private intelligence companies, like ChoicePoint, reported $253 million in employee-screening revenue and, last year alone, the FBI preformed a record 16.9 million criminal background checks, a six-fold increase from over a decade ago. Economists at the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimate that the United States has at least 12 million individuals with criminal records of working age, who account for about 1.5 percent of our unemployment rate, costing the economy between $57 and $65 billion in lost output.

Last year alone, the FBI preformed a record 16.9 million criminal background checks, a six-fold increase from over a decade ago.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers in 10 states and over 51 cities have already enacted Ban the Box policies, eliminating the check-box that asks about an applicant’s criminal record. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also ruled this year that employers cannot deny people jobs based on arrest or conviction records. Despite the groundswell of legislative action by states, Congress has not followed suit.

Enacting Ban the Box policies will not only improve the economy but public safety as well. For the hundreds of thousands of individuals who return home each year from prison, their chance of returning back to prison is two times lower if they have a job. As one Minnesota Republican state senator argued “unless there is some hope that [returning prisoners will] be able to … earn a wage, be able to support their loved ones—the recidivism rate of these individuals is extremely high.”

As an employer who has hired formerly incarcerated individuals to work in health care settings, I know seeing individuals for their full set of skills and experiences, and not just their check-box, makes good sense, no matter your politics. At the Transitions Clinic Network, a national network of community health centers who care for individuals recently released from prison, we have found that training former prisoners to become community health workers who serve patients returning home from prison reduces unnecessary emergency department utilization by 50 percent and, thus, reduces the costs of the health care system.

Let’s be clear. Ban the Box laws do not forbid employers from doing background checks. They only put off the criminal history question until later in the hiring process, when a person has been deemed otherwise qualified for the job. The laws also don’t change who is permitted to work in law enforcement, childcare or health care jobs. Absolutely none of this changes under Ban the Box laws. What changes is that job applicants get a fairer shot at gaining employment, regardless of their criminal history.

Before Ron got the job with me, he applied for seven jobs in San Francisco, got discouraged, and stop applying. In each application, he checked a box reporting his past felony conviction. Ron did not get a single interview, but the employers also did not have a chance to interview Ron and consider him for his own merits. Ron now leads a national network for community health workers caring for individuals returning home from prison. He is also housed, financially supporting his family, paying taxes, and in his own words, can finally “step out of the closet about his past.” Allowing former felons to prove their qualifications first and explain their convictions later gives these individuals who have already paid their debt to society a second chance.

Late last year, Senator Marco Rubio introduced the “Healthcare Privacy and Anti-Fraud Act,” which would bar individuals with felony convictions from working as navigators for Obamacare health exchanges. The rationale given for the legislation is “to combat fraud and protect consumers … [from] identify theft.” But the subtext is that individuals with criminal records, regardless of their ability to assist others in obtaining insurance, should not be able to assist their community and provide for themselves and their families.

As a nation, we cannot afford to exclude 65 million individuals from the workforce based on a box alone. Congress must Ban the Box entirely for the economic health, public safety, and our own moral standing.

Emily Wang
Emily Wang is an assistant professor of medicine at Yale University and co-founder of the Transitions Clinic Network. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.