Why All Applicants—Even Criminals—Deserve a Fair Chance at Employment

Have you ever made a mistake? Most of us would say yes and if you said no, you’d be lying.

There are harmless mistakes, and there are some that cause real problems. We all make them and, for the most part, can move beyond them. But what about those mistakes that are crimes? What happens to those who make one seriously bad decision and pay for it with their time and freedom?

Criminals make a bad choice, get caught, and serve time (in a very inconsistent legal system I would remind you, but that’s a conversation for another day). For many ex-convicts, re-entry into society is not an easy task. Some have been imprisoned for so long they don’t remember how to function in normal society. Many have severe emotional issues. No matter the length of time served, finding employment is difficult for any applicant who has to check “yes” on the criminal history section of a job application. While most of us can understand the reasons why this field is present on applications, is it really fair?

Ban the Box is an initiative to erase the “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” question on employment applications, banning the requirement of job applicants to include conviction history to a potential employer. According to the National Employment Law Project, thirteen U.S. states have already embraced this ban and thirty additional states have local bans in place.

Banning the box is important because it gives those with criminal records a greater chance of being considered for a job rather than being disqualified immediately. It’s important to clarify that Ban the Box laws do not prevent employers from performing background checks on applicants, or inquiring about criminal history later in the hiring process. It simply allows those who’ve been convicted of a crime in the past and paid their debt to society a chance to get their foot in the door. Let’s not forget that this is an issue for 65 million Americans who have criminal histories.

There are more specific problems with the “box.” An ex-convict who is required to check that box on a job application has no opportunity to explain his or her criminal history or the degree of the crime. Pot smokers and petty theft offenders are checking the same box as rapists and child abusers. While all criminals are entitled to a second chance upon completion of their sentence, the nature of the crime is crucial to many. Take Mark Olmsted. A writer with no criminal history who suffers from HIV, Olmsted found himself unable to work due to health complications. He began to write more and travel the world during what he knew would be the last good years of his life. He began to watch people he knew die around him, some of the same disease. Determined to push forward, he landed a job as a bartender where he would soon discover crystal meth, a drug that would give him energy and motivation.

Somehow along the way, Olmsted’s treatment was showing promise and he began to improve physically. This had not been a part of his plan. Not because he didn’t want to live, but because he had not prepared financially for a future. He found himself in extreme debt and so turned to drug dealing. Inevitably the law crept up on him and his “side business” for which he paid in both fines and with jail time. While serving his time Olmsted got sober. He understood the repercussions of his actions but never realized how much trouble such crimes could cause for a college graduate with a master’s degree searching for a teaching job. His criminal record came between him and his work every time. Were Olmsted’s crimes legitimate? Yes. Were they excusable? No. Would you look at him differently knowing his entire story than you would if he had only the opportunity to check a box? I’m sure many would.

Being an ex-convict doesn’t make you a bad person or unworthy of a job. As Kansas City, Missouri, Councilman John Sharp said, “Everyone knows someone with a misdemeanor or a felony, and I would ask for you to think of that person and ask whether or not they should be denied an opportunity to just have a simple interview. I am about as hard on violent crime as anyone can be because my family has been victims.” Sharp has been leading the Ban the Box movement in Kansas City.

The arguments for eradicating employment applications and forms of the criminal history section are reasonable and understandable. But, there are still aspects to an employment application that are just as unfair when using the same logic. Consider the gender category. Is it really necessary to know the sex of an applicant while evaluating their qualifications? What about race? Why would ethnicity play a factor in determining an applicant’s competence and desirability? When it comes down to it, the characteristics of the applicant that have nothing to do with the ability to perform the job shouldn’t matter. But they do. There is no question that women and minorities lose a point or two among their competitors, and this same problem affects many ex-convicts struggling to re-enter society.

The logic of a system that releases convicts back into society, expecting them to improve and make the right decisions, while rejecting them and denying them the tools and equal opportunities they need to succeed is simply backwards. And it’s a system where nobody wins.

If you want to join the fight to ban discrimination against those with criminal records, or want more information, visit bantheboxcampaign.org.