Ban the Box

by Mary Ann McGivern

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If you’ve been convicted of a felony, it is hard to get a job. Most applications ask, usually with a check-off box, if you’ve ever been convicted. Some ask if you’ve ever been arrested. There’s space sometimes for an explanation, but most employers don’t look any further than the box. After all, if they’ve got a hundred applications, it’s easy to sort first by rejecting everybody with a criminal background.

According to Wikipedia, a campaign to ban this application check-off box started in the ’90s in Hawaii. But recent successful city legislation in North Carolina, California, Missouri and Georgia has sparked new efforts. Now the state of Georgia has banned the box on state applications. There’s a bill to do the same in the Missouri legislature and activists are on the phone weekly to map a strategy for its passage.

Ban the Box does not mean that employers can’t do background checks or that they won’t ask about convictions later in the hiring process, just that a conviction in one’s past is not an immediate cause for rejection. Also, these new laws generally address only government jobs. I know in Missouri the Department of Transportation uses inmates for road work but won’t hire them when they’re released. Similarly some departments of the City of St. Louis have a policy of not hiring people with felony convictions. Understandably, industry is reluctant to hire people rejected by the government. So a change in public policy will influence the private sector.

Ban the Box won’t reduce the unemployment statistics. It’s a small effort. But it makes employment possible for applicants with talent and initiative. They don’t want to go back to prison. They want to work. Ban the Box gives them some hope.

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