Beyond the box

Ten years ago, as we worked to create the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, we held focus groups on homelessness around the county. I’ll never forget a woman I met at one of them. She had been homeless for four years. She had been in prison before that for three. Her prison record kept her from finding work. Her lack of work kept her from finding an apartment. Here she was, looking for a solution, wanting to be part of the solution, and yet she was part of the problem. She had been part of the problem for longer than the state had required her to pay for her crime.

If you have pictured this woman in your mind’s eye as an African American, you are correct.

Stories like hers are a big part of the problem of homelessness. When people are released from jail or prison, having done their time, they often are left on their own in a society that has little time for second chances. And when these folks can gain no traction, find no jobs, no place to live, they can end up committing crimes all over again.

The “ban the box” campaign offers one part of the solution by asking that employers not screen out job applicants on the initial application form. Earlier this month, President Obama took executive action instructing federal officials to ban the box. With that move, the federal government joined more than 100 municipalities, counties, and states (not yet North Carolina) in removing this first hurdle to employment. Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough, and Orange County banned the box three years ago, thanks to the advocacy of the Partnership to End Homelessness and especially that of Hank Elkins, who has dedicated so much of his time to this and other re-entry initiatives through the Orange County Correctional Center.

But changing an employment form is only the first step. Meaningful change can happen only with the commitment of the entire organization. To promote that end, and with the welcome advice and advocacy of the North Carolina Justice Center and the Orange County criminal defense bar, the Town on November 1 adopted a new policy with respect to background checks. The Town will still require them–but not until a conditional job offer is made. Managers must put the findings in context with other factors, including the person’s age at the time of the offense, employment history before that time and after, and rehabilitation efforts and character references.

Said Daniel Bowes, criminal justice specialist with the Justice Center, this change “establishes clear procedures for when, how, and by whom an applicant’s criminal record will be considered in the hiring decision. This ensures the fair, thoughtful, and consistent consideration of applicants with talents, skills, practical experiences, ambitions, dependents, and criminal records.”

On the basis of experiences of other municipalities and states, Bowes predicts that this policy will lead to the hiring of more individuals with criminal records and that the Town “will find these new hires to be among their best employees.” And, he continued, “restoring opportunities for gainful employment to community members with criminal records will be transformative for those individuals, given a chance to provide for their families and more fully contribute to the community.”

To be sure, some criminal histories will be so directly relevant to the type of work that the applicant will not get the job. But when that history is not relevant to the work and it is clear that the person is living a different life, this policy gives people an opportunity to prove that they are right for the job. Equally important, it gives managers clear guidance on how to weigh the facts and make reasoned decisions.

Strategies like these are particularly important in North Carolina, according to Bowes, because, alone among the fifty states, we prosecute sixteen-year-olds as “adults.” This practice “saddles kids with criminal records that often define their entire experiences as adults,” he said. “We also allow civilians to initiate warrants without the involvement of law enforcement, which has its purposes but often leads to charges that are eventually dismissed as meritless but remain on individuals’ criminal records.”

James Williams, the public defender for Orange and Chatham counties and another strong advocate for re-entry policies such as these, agrees that changing the background check policy is critical to ensuring that the goals of “ban the box” are met. For Williams, effective re-entry policies go to the very core of what it means to be an American. He notes that

in the historical roots of this country, this idea of second chances and new opportunity and rebirth is a strong thread. That is what “ban the box” is about. Today, whether you call it mass incarceration or the carceral state, we are the most criminalized people in the world. Statistically, one in three people in this country have some sort of criminal history: close to 60 or 70 million people. They are disproportionately people of color. That’s one of the reasons “ban the box” is so critical. We believe that these people should enjoy the opportunities that others enjoy to get a job, to succeed in life even though they may have made a mistake in the past.

And he underscores that when people can’t find jobs as they come out of prison, they can “become hopeless, and when that happens, a lot of the time they return to that life of crime. Students of criminology say that being employed is probably the strongest deterrent to reoffending.”

The next step is to reach beyond public employment to private-sector hiring. Once again, partner organizations of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness are taking the lead. Building upon the Partnership’s successful Job Partners program, the Community Empowerment Fund, via its Integrated Services Center, and the Chamber of Commerce are working together to promote the idea with local businesses. They’ve been convening workforce development stakeholders to discuss the needs and concerns of businesses as well as to share strategies that have proven successful: education and training of a re-entering workforce is critical to these conversations.

Much work remains to be done to support the lives and livelihoods of returning criminal offenders. These issues, of course, are implicated in larger questions about who goes to prison, for what, and for how long: national conversations are in progress on bias in police practices and jury selection, questionable mandatory sentencing schemes, and the role of the prison-industrial complex in impeding systems change.

But at least we’ve begun, observes Williams. “Within the criminal justice system we are beginning to say that there is a smarter way to do this. We’ve done it the harder way. Let’s do it the smarter way. The smarter way is to try to put in place policy changes and protocols that can allow people that second chance.”


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