Sunday, March 2, 2014

It's Time to Ban 'The Box' for Good

Let's end a bad public and private industry policy that sabotages lives and communities 

Kudos to the Indianapolis City-County Council for recently passing a proposal to ban “the box” indicating felony conviction on all city- and county-related job applications. Mayor Greg Ballard should readily affirm the ordinance and begin to lead our region and state in re-entry reform. In fact, now is the time for all employers to drop “the box.”

“The box,” found on most standard employment applications, has served as a major barrier to employment opportunities, and, thereby, to self-support, stability, and full post-incarceration reintegration into community life for thousands of ex-felons for decades.

Inserted on job applications at the insistence of insurance companies as a way to reduce risk, “the box” has sabotaged the recovery of individuals, destabilized families, and undermined safety and development in communities. “The box” has a punishing impact that has no end.

When ex-offenders are released from incarceration, it is imperative that they soon find employment. If they do not, the trajectory of rotten outcomes is predictable. No work means no money for housing and self-support. This often leads to desperation, return to criminal activity (recidivism), and community burden and risk.

Because of “the box,” taxpayers get stuck with the bill at every turn. First, citizens pay exorbitant amounts to lock up felons in what has become a private industry feeding frenzy and the largest outlay of State public funds. Then, we pay the multi-layered prices of recidivism locally when ex-felons are locked out of work: social service system dependency, family poverty, crime, public safety, courts, etc.

Two of our toughest social issues are driven, in part, by “the box.” Recidivism is fueled by the desperation and frustration of unemployment. Locked out of work opportunities, many ex-felons succumb to past criminal patterns in order to survive. Likewise, “the box” is implicated in the homelessness that many ex-felons find as their unwanted condition when denial of work prevents them from paying for a roof over their heads.

Banning "the box" does not mean that employers should ignore felony records. Every employer can--and should--require background checks on job applicants after a conditional offer of employment. If the background check reveals an offense that would prevent an otherwise qualified applicant from fulfilling the job requirements, the offer can be rescinded. But, without "the box," an employer first sees a human being, not merely a criminal record. 

If its original intention was to reduce business risk, “the box” itself has become the greater risk to individuals, communities, and industry. The costs in resultant criminal activity, re-incarceration, social service system drag, community liabilities, and moral incoherency heavily tip the scales. Locking out people who have paid their debt makes it insanely tough on everyone.

There is a better bottom line for the business and government sectors as “the box” is banned. Crime and recidivism rates—and their related costs—will drop when those who are released from prison can get the jobs current policies are denying them. If we want different outcomes, we must think and act differently.

Now that the City-County Council has led the way, nonprofits and for-profit businesses of our city and region should join in. Nonprofit Boards of Directors should consider, deliberate, and affirm a “ban the box” policy for the organizations they steward. It will take challenging foregone conclusions and appealing to their insurance underwriters for changed policies. Likewise, for-profit business leaders and managers can, in fact, actually lead instead of wringing hands, making excuses, and passing the buck.

Banning “the box” is just one of many needed reforms in public and private industry policies regarding re-entry. Numerous practical recommendations emerged from the City-County Council’s 2013 Re-entry Study Commission. Read the final report of the commission and related documents at this link:

At this point, what is needed most is leadership. Who are the faithful stewards of community integrity who are ready to restore sanity to re-entry policies?  Who are the aspiring leaders who see reentry as everyone's problem and everyone's opportunity and will lead courageously with common sense? It’s time to step up to the plate and ban “the box” for good.

Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

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