In the Shadow of The Box

Approximately one in every 163 adults is incarcerated in Mecklenburg County. That amounts to about 3,800 people in jail and prison at any given time. As of last July, 6,874 were on probation. The unfortunate reality facing many of these individuals with a criminal past is that they walk out of a prison cell, straight into a box.

This “Box” is often a simple question on employment applications that requires the applicants to check “yes” or “no” as to whether they have previously been convicted of a crime. According to Devah Pager, author of The Mark of a Criminal Record, once the applicant checks the box, employers are twice as likely to deny employment to an applicant with a criminal record than an applicant without one. People who complete their time and are released find themselves chained to their past, with a dark shadow standing over them every time they fill out a job application or sit down for an interview. They all stand in the shadow of The Box.

According to the Center for Community Transitions and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, 97 percent of those incarcerated in Mecklenburg County will return to the community, many with little or no resources, and nearly a 50 percent chance of being rearrested within a year. In a study done by the Indiana Department of Corrections, if employed, ex-offenders’ recidivism dropped from a high of 44.7 percent, down to 28.5 percent for someone without a GED or high school diploma; the numbers go as low as 17.3 percent if that individual has a college degree and employment.

The challenges individuals with criminal backgrounds face disproportionately impact people of color, the working poor, and minorities; populations which are convicted and incarcerated in numbers disproportionate to their population. According to the Department of Justice, African-American and Hispanic males were imprisoned at a rate between 2 to 7 times that of white males nationwide during 2011. This imbalance has created a disparate impact on job seekers from minority communities. The Box greatly exacerbates the re-entry adversity which thousands of potential employees, their families and communities already face.

In an effort to promote and assist with the communal reintegration of those with a criminal history, the Ban The Box movement seeks to remove the requirement that applicants disclose all past convictions on a preliminary application for public employment with the City of Charlotte. Past efforts in the community have shown that employment dramatically lowers the recidivism rate for participating ex-offenders by as much as 35 percent below the national average. Research from the Center for Community Transitions shows that finding and retaining employment are major factors in preventing return to prison. Over 20 cities have passed similar legislation including Durham City, Durham County, San Francisco, Seattle, and more. Some states, like Massachusetts, have successfully adopted legislation at the state level.

The cost? An opportunity to explain. City employers would not be prohibited from making background checks, but would instead have to extend a conditional offer of employment prior to a check taking place. Qualified applicants would be able to discuss their criminal history in an interview and explain why it should not disqualify them, as well as provide evidence of their rehabilitation. Adopting the ordinance would not only lower recidivism, preventing the overcrowding of prisons and jails, but would also significantly decrease the cost to taxpayers of housing inmates.

Ex-offenders may have few or no resources to begin to unshackle themselves from their past convictions and gain lawful employment. Through this proposal they will have a chance at becoming functional, contributing members of society once again, while simultaneously decreasing their chances of recidivism. The Ban The Box Coalition plans to present its resolution and proposed ordinance to the City Council Monday, February 25th, at 6:15pm. Everyone is invited to attend and show their support. With our help, ex-offenders have a chance to get out from under the shadow of The Box.

By Daniel Melo

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