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Ex-convicts hurt by box option

File Photo
File Photo

Ex-convicts seeking to find employment after being released from prison must contend with “the box” on most job application forms, which asks: “have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Banning employers from including this box would likely reduce Michigan’s recidivism rate and therefore should be considered a viable strategy for alleviating Michigan’s overpopulated prison system. Besides this, “banning the box” on job application forms would help create a more just system for ex-convicts.

The presence of the box on job applications directly violates the federal government’s Equal Opportunity Commission’s ruling, which states that it is illegal to screen out potential employees unless their offense pertains directly to the job being applied for. Apart from the fairly clear legal case against the box, there remains a strong economic case against the box.

Prison overcrowding continues to pose an economic burden on Michigan taxpayers. The Pew Center estimates that Michigan’s prison population hovers around 51,544. It costs $207 per day to house each of these inmates, which comes out to an annual cost that approaches a billion dollars (one fifth of Michigan’s total budget). Michigan’s costly prison population remains high in large part due to its consistently high rate of recidivism.

The box virtually eliminates the chance that ex-convicts will find a job when released from prison. Without the option of finding legitimate work, ex-convicts are faced with the choice of either attempting to live off the goodwill of their families and non-profit organizations, or returning to criminal activity to make ends meet. Given that over 30 percent of Michigan’s approximately 11,000 ex-convicts recidivate within two years of their prior conviction, many ex-convicts take the latter option.

Doing away with the box would have the effect of allowing more ex-convicts to make it from the initial application stage to the interview stage of the job application process. Although employers may still decide not to employ an ex-convict due to their past criminal behavior, ex-convicts would at least be given the possibility to convince employers that their character and job skills are sufficient for employment. Increasing the level of economic opportunity available to ex-convicts would help reduce Michigan’s high rates of recidivism and prison overcrowding, therefore reducing costs for Michigan’s taxpayers.

Opponents of “ban the box” legislation frequently claim that the passage of such bills would prevent employers from conducting a thorough investigation of their future employees, discriminates against those without a criminal record during the job application process and creates a harmful work environment. The first of these concerns can be easily dismissed as “ban the box” legislation does not remove the right of employers to look into the background of job applicants through background checks or through questions during the interview process, but defends ex-convicts’ right under federal law to receive equal consideration with other job applicants.

Those who claim that “ban the box” creates discrimination have the situation backward. “Ban the box” legislation does not seek to discriminate against non-criminals during the job application process, but rather aims to eliminate de facto economic discrimination against the formerly criminal class. In reality, even if ex-convicts are allowed to make it to the interview stage during the job application process, they are unlikely to win out over applicants without criminal backgrounds. That doesn’t mean they should not at least be given equal opportunity to find employment.

As far as workplace safety goes, there seems little to reason to fear that employers could not use good judgment during the interview process to select which candidates held the appropriate character and job skills to successfully function in the job setting. The fear that all ex-convicts will pose a danger to their fellow employees or will act improperly in the workplace, which the existence of the box suggests exists among many employers, is based on unfair and often inaccurate negative judgment of an entire class of people without deeper personal investigation of individuals.

The legal status of the box remains shaky under federal equal opportunity law and there is a potential that the box will be banned simply on legal grounds. If not, the case for the entire state of Michigan joining Detroit, Kalamazoo, Muskegon County and Saginaw County, which have already banned the box, remains strong as doing so would help to lower Michigan’s recidivism rate and prison overcrowding. Michigan taxpayers could look forward to seeing ex-convicts successfully reenter society and contribute to the local economy rather than paying for them as they return behind bars.

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