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Editorial: How RailRoad gets it wrong, and how RailRoad gets it right

RailRoad, a student activist organization at Brown which seeks “a world where the Prison Industrial Complex has been destroyed,” presented to the Undergraduate Council of Students last month and hosted a public teach-in this month, highlighting its proposal that the University adopt a “fair chance hiring” policy. Its plan would amend University hiring practices to make them “more inclusive of people with conviction histories.”  But while we agree with the main issue that RailRoad fundamentally seeks to address, we feel the University’s current hiring policy regarding background checks and conviction records appears both sufficiently rigorous and fair — and substantively addresses RailRoad’s primary concerns.

A “collective of prison abolitionists, criminal justice reformers and others,” RailRoad works with local organizations to reduce incarceration by transforming the justice and prison systems in the United States. It now seeks to convince the University to adopt a new set of rules governing its hiring policies for candidates applying for staff positions. Let us be clear: the organization is absolutely correct to highlight the myriad injustices associated with mass incarceration in the United States, including pervasive racial disparity and the immense employment challenges facing people with prior convictions. Given these points and the University’s clear mission and ability to have a positive influence in Rhode Island and beyond, the University certainly has an obligation and an opportunity to play a key role in breaking this cycle for formerly incarcerated people.

Making employment accessible to formerly incarcerated individuals can have a significant positive impact on their life trajectories. As two members of the group wrote in an op-ed in The Herald, the multitude of issues that formerly incarcerated people experience when returning to the outside world are “compounded by the inability to access dependable sources of employment.” The op-ed first highlights that the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is substantially higher than the national average — 27 percent compared to 3.6 percent in September 2019. It also emphasizes that granting employment opportunities dramatically reduces the rate of recidivism. The op-ed cited a study from the Manhattan Institute which found that, while the statewide rates of recidivism ranged from 31 to 70 percent, the recidivism rate for the subset of people employed after their release stood at between 3.3 and 8 percent. Thus, it is clear that employing people with a history of incarceration would considerably diminish the “cycle of release, impoverishment, and return to prison.”

RailRoad’s “fair chance hiring” proposal to the University comprises several key points that the group sees as critical to reducing the barriers they perceive formerly incarcerated candidates to face when applying to staff positions at Brown. The RailRoad proposal makes four suggestions: It directs the University to include conviction history in its non-discrimination statement, to conduct background checks only for those positions that legally mandate them, to take into account conviction history only if directly related to the job and to commit to hiring a certain number of people who have been formerly incarcerated. According to the group’s presentation to UCS, the policies would “ensure that the (University) hire and retain an impactful number of people with past convictions, and to institutionalize support and inclusion of formerly incarcerated community members.” However, while RailRoad is absolutely correct to work to reduce the barriers that previously incarcerated people face when seeking employment, the University’s current hiring policy strikes the right balance between keeping fair hiring practices while ensuring that the University is able to consider all relevant aspects of a candidate’s past that may affect their ability to do the job well.

First, the University already fulfills one of RailRoad’s key objectives, as expressed in the above-mentioned op-ed. Specifically, a goal of the group is to ensure Brown’s compliance with fair-chance hiring policy, which would “prohibit employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until they review the merits of the application.” The current University hiring policy states that it only conducts criminal background checks “after a conditional offer has been made, but prior to the first day of employment.” In other words, the University’s current policy explicitly mandates that it review the substance of a candidate’s application before even starting a review of potential criminal history.

Second, the University is clear in stating that “criminal convictions or pleas will not automatically exclude an applicant from consideration for employment for most staff positions.” Instead, the University evaluates the results of background checks based on four criteria: “the nature and seriousness of the offenses for which the finalist has been convicted; the number of such offenses; whether such convictions are related to the duties of the position; (and) the accuracy of information provided by the finalist in the application process.” This section of the policy indicates that the University holistically considers formerly incarcerated applicants, including nuanced aspects of their criminal record — an approach that drastically differs from issuing rejections simply based on criminal history.

Third, University policy explicitly allows candidates to submit material that they feel might add context to their conviction history: “pre-employees … will be permitted to provide responsive information regarding their criminal conviction record and other background records, including evidence of rehabilitation, character … and other extenuating circumstances.” The University’s policy therefore gives significantly more room for fair evaluation of formerly incarcerated applicants on a case-by-case basis, which conflicts with the op-ed’s assertion that the University’s “policy is certainly limiting, if not completely preventing, the hiring of formerly incarcerated individuals.”

In addition, while the University’s current policy appears to sufficiently address RailRoad’s concerns that formerly incarcerated individuals face unfair barriers to employment at Brown, RailRoad’s proposals would greatly restrict the University’s ability to consider all aspects of a candidate’s background. Conducting background checks only for positions that legally mandate them and taking into account conviction history only if directly related to the job would change Brown’s current policy, preventing the University from conducting a holistic review of every candidate’s application.

If the University were to follow the form the current RailRoad proposal takes, the U. could not make the informed employment decisions which are in the best interests of its students. Indeed, while the University should continue to employ formerly incarcerated individuals, its policy cannot entirely neglect considering the criminal backgrounds of job applicants because specific candidates might have criminal histories which would impact students regardless of which job they apply to. For example, the University should be aware of whether a candidate has a history of stalking young women to fulfill its responsibility of cultivating a safe environment for all of its students. Thus, it is illogical for RailRoad to suggest that the University should only be able to inquire about a person’s criminal background if it is specifically relevant to the job they are applying for. There is no way for the University to know if the nature of the crime does substantively relate to the job unless it does conduct a review of the person’s criminal history.

To be sure, we support RailRoad and other student efforts for their engagement. We agree with their objective of radically changing the broken current system in an effort to build a more equitable society. We encourage students to involve themselves even more with these initiatives, including through the creation of more groups like the Petey Greene Program, which provides tutoring services to incarcerated individuals.  Nonetheless, we feel the University’s current policy for the employment of formerly incarcerated individuals are just and appropriately inclusive. However, we do support RailRoad’s demands for more transparency about the extent of these practices’ actual implementation. The University should publish statistics about its hiring of formerly incarcerated people, and should be thorough in ensuring that its policies are fully and properly applied. In addition, we would like to second RailRoad’s call for the University to “institutionalize support and inclusion” for previously incarcerated individuals at Brown. Doing so would advance the University’s role as a leader in progressive and inclusive hiring practices and would achieve RailRoad’s goal: ensuring that more previously incarcerated people are hired and their barriers to re-integrating into our community are greatly — and rightfully — diminished.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Grace Layer ’20 and Krista Stapleford ’21, and its members, Dylan Tian ’21, Eduard Muñoz-Suñé ’20, Jonathan Douglas ’20 and Riley Pestorius ’21. Send comments to Send comments to


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