Photo credit: PBS, “Banning ‘the box’ to give ex-convicts a better chance at finding a job,” Dec. 25, 2014
Over the past few years, a growing list of city, state and local governments; organizations; and private companies have come forward to support “Ban the Box.” It’s an initiative to persuade employers to remove the question “Have you been convicted?” from job applications and delay that inquiry until the final stages of the hiring process. The goal is for employers to make hiring decisions based on a candidate’s skills and qualifications, not their past transgressions. This month, President Obama took an historic step by directing the Office of Personnel Management to take action to ban the box in federal employment. As a result, OPM will modify its rules to delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process. Encouraging employers to make this shift is critical. An estimated 70 million Americans — one in four adults — have a criminal record. Employment is a stabilizing factor in anyone’s life, providing a sense of structure and responsibility, and it’s strongly correlated with reduced recidivism for those reintegrating into the community following incarceration. Because employers often hesitate to hire an ex-offender, not having to check that box can make a massive difference. Marsha Temple, of Los Angeles’ Integrated Recovery Network, knows well the stories of many of the individuals for whom the box is a major barrier. For more than 15 years, she has worked to improve mental health services for people who are homeless and/or have mental health disorders — about 44 percent of whom have spent time in jail, prison or community corrections. In California alone, there are about 33,000 prisoners with mental health disorders, roughly 30 percent of the incarcerated population. As a part of the Add Us In initiative funded by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, Temple has spent the last five years focusing on providing employment services to difficult-to-place candidates with disabilities, including those who have a history of addiction and other mental health disorders, which are so often intertwined with homelessness and incarceration. One example is K.L., a 38-year-old Latina who at an early age became involved with drugs and gangs, eventually landing in prison. Upon release, she was determined to turn her life around. Recognizing that employment was key, she obtained certifications in both food handling and forklift operation. She was called for interviews, but no one would hire her. She felt the stigma of her record always followed her. But with increasing efforts to ban the box, she remained hopeful, and recently landed a great culinary job at a high-end market. Temple and her organization address work barriers by providing community-based, wraparound and one-on-one supports to candidates like K.L. as they prepare for and sustain employment. Overall, 67.7 percent of Temple’s clients who received services had at least one work-related outcome, which could include permanent employment, work-based experience or an internship at a business, or involvement in an education or training program. By contrast, throughout California only 10 percent of individuals with mental health disorders receiving services became employed. Given that many individuals with criminal records also have mental health disorders, banning the box has an important ancillary effect: it can also be a key strategy in helping to raise the employment rate — and thus economic self-sufficiency — of people with disabilities. In fact, through education about the over-representation of people with disabilities in the criminal justice system, Temple was able to solicit greater support for the effort from both government agencies and private companies. Many large employers, such as Target, have already signed on. What about you? Day Al-Mohamed is a senior policy adviser in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, where she focuses on youth issues.