Columns, Opinions

Aman ’20: Ban the box

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Recently, momentum has grown around the movement to “ban the box” — the checkbox that asks if one has a criminal conviction on initial job applications. Proponents of the ban argue that employers use the question to screen applicants unfairly, which disproportionately affects young men of color and amplifies the effects of a prejudiced criminal justice system. Currently, 30 states ban this question for government jobs, and 10 states, including Rhode Island, have also prohibited private employers from asking the question on initial job applications. Meanwhile, a smaller but growing movement has focused on a similar question on college applications, which generally require even more information than job applications do. While employers typically limit their question to felony convictions, the Common Application, used by more than 700 colleges and universities including Brown, asks about felonies, misdemeanors and guilty juvenile adjudications.

“Banning the box” for both employment and college admissions is an important step in achieving racial justice, as this question amplifies the harm caused by a biased and flawed criminal justice system. The criminal justice system touches the lives of a large portion of America’s young people; 30 percent of Americans will have an arrest record by the age of 23. For young men of color, encounters with the criminal justice system are commonplace: By age 23, 44 percent of Hispanic men and 49 percent of black men will have arrest records. Furthermore, racial disparities in criminal justice are well-documented. For example, although black Americans and white Americans use drugs at similar rates, black Americans are nearly three times more likely to be arrested for drug-related crime, and more than six times more likely to be incarcerated for the same offense.

In addition, research shows that “the box” is a significant barrier for those with criminal records in admissions. One study found that rejection rates were 12 to 13 percent higher for those with criminal convictions compared to similar students without convictions. More importantly, evidence suggests that “the box” discourages applicants with criminal convictions from applying at all. For example, of 3,000 potential applicants with felony convictions to the State University of New York system, 62 percent failed to complete the application, compared to 21 percent of potential applicants without convictions. Because higher education offers a clear path toward secure employment and higher wages, excluding those with criminal histories from this path amplifies the damage caused by an unfair criminal justice system and makes breaking free from such a system much harder.

Colleges and universities are rightly concerned about the safety of their students, which may make them hesitant to “ban the box” on college applications. Yet college students who commit crimes rarely have a prior record, and there is little evidence to suggest that college students with criminal convictions are more likely to commit crimes. In fact, most crimes on college campuses are related to “binge drinking, Greek life and big-time college athletics,” according to the Atlantic. While asking about specific aspects of an applicant’s criminal history — such as convictions related to sexual assault — could possibly help colleges protect students, the broad nature of the Common Application criminal history question does more harm than good.

In the past few years, some colleges and universities have made efforts to balance commitments to justice and student safety. In 2016, in response to activism by the SUNY Student Assembly, the SUNY Board of Trustees voted to stop asking applicants about prior convictions, although they still require this information on applications for on-campus housing, study abroad and other programs. In 2017, Louisiana became the first state to ban all public colleges from asking about criminal history except for sexual assault or stalking. Unfortunately, similar legislation was recently vetoed in Maryland.

So far, private colleges and universities have been slower to adjust. One notable exception is New York University, which revised its admissions policy in 2015 in response to persistent student activism by the Incarceration to Education Coalition. Currently, while the undergraduate college still uses the Common Application and asks for applicants’ conviction history, the admissions team conducts initial application reviews without knowledge of prior convictions and then considers conviction history later in the process. NYU’s Silver School of Social Work has abandoned the question altogether. In 2016, responding to continued pressure from the IEC, NYU sent a letter to the Common Application “advising the organization to evaluate the value of disciplinary and criminal history checkboxes in their application.” While the IEC urged the administration to go further, calling the letter a “stalling tactic,” the administration has not yet taken any further action.

These recent developments show that “banning the box” is not straightforward in practice. Yet while colleges and universities should absolutely make every effort to protect their students, the current form and use of the criminal convictions question is far too broad and thus contributes to racial injustice without any clear benefits to student safety. Up until now, student activism has been incredibly effective in putting “ban the box” on the higher education agenda and convincing college administrations to make some much-needed reforms. It’s time for Brown — if we truly value justice and equity — to follow these student activists’ lead and start a conversation about how to create policies that keep students safe without perpetuating racial injustice in college admissions.

Rebecca Aman ’20 can be reached at rebecca_aman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.