One Advocate’s Experience with the Ban the Box Campaign

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As a young activist, fresh out of social work school in 2004, I was hired to work at a small, grassroots, non-profit organization in South Los Angeles that assists women transitioning from jails and prison back to the community. Although I had no personal experience of incarceration, I was simultaneously outraged by the disproportionate representation of people of color in the criminal justice system and inspired by the resilience and persistence of the formerly incarcerated women I met at who were striving daily to beat the odds and rebuild their lives.

The organization where I worked was founded by a dynamic and powerful woman whose personal experience cycling in and out of prison six times over nearly two decades, coupled with the political awareness she subsequently acquired about the so-called Prison Industrial Complex and its the systemic injustices, led her to co-found with other formerly incarcerated people a group called All of Us or None (AOUON). AOUON, at that time, had just begun its work of organizing chapters in Northern and Southern California, and spearheading campaigns in various locales to “Ban the Box.” Aimed at diminishing one of the primary barriers people with criminal records face – employment discrimination – the Ban the Box campaign introduced Fair Employment Ordinances (sometimes called Fair Chance Initiatives) in specific city and county jurisdictions with the hope of removing the question about prior conviction from initial applications for employment. The logic was simple: Permit persons with a conviction history to make it through the very first phase – the application – on equal footing with all other applicants, and then create a mechanism for full disclosure (including evidence of rehabilitation) at a later stage in the hiring process.

My role, as an eager and optimistic advocate, was to draft a Fair Employment Ordinance to put before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for consideration, and to work closely with local All of Us or None community organizers to mobilize support for the policy. We were strategic in our efforts. We conducted an analysis of the five sitting Supervisors and the likelihood they would support the measure. We knew which committees it would need to pass through, and we set up meetings with those members. We organized public testimony before the Board, held press conferences, and conducted email and letter writing campaigns (this was before social media had taken over as a major vehicle for policy advocacy and organizing). We were unsuccessful in our efforts during my tenure with the group. Fair Employment Ordinances had only passed in a few other locales, so there was little precedent nor data about its outcomes. The sea change in rhetoric from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime” had not yet swept the country. Formerly incarcerated people had not yet acquired undeniable political power, although voter registration efforts were underway in many locales. This young activist, while disappointed by the defeat, had an itch to go back to school to discover the power that scholarship and empirical research could add to movements for criminal justice reform.

More than a decade later, as a scholar-activist with a PhD in Social Work, I find myself in a new world – one where the tide seems to have markedly turned. Groups of formerly incarcerated people have formed all over the country, and are making regular trips to their local and state elected officials in their quest for democracy to advocate for an array of reentry reforms. Those same elected officials and their tax-paying constituents have come to recognize the unsustainability of mass incarceration and are implementing measures to reduce jail and prison overcrowding and end the once-inevitable cycle of recidivism. Recently, a bipartisan summit convened in the nation’s capital to discuss solutions to our country’s over-reliance on prisons – a summit partially supported by none other than the Koch brothers. Many of the injustices we were identifying in the earliest years of the twenty first century, and the solutions that seemed so unlikely to ever be adopted, are now becoming commonplace.

As for Ban the Box, the National Employment Law Project – an organization that advocates for and tracks the success of the Ban the Box campaign – reports that 13 states and almost 100 cities and counties across the nation have adopted Fair Chance hiring policies. In Southern California, where my personal journey with these efforts began, the persistent efforts of organizers led to the passage of Fair Chance Initiatives in the Cities of Carson and Compton. Although their long-term efforts in the City and County of Los Angeles remained unrequited, Assembly Bill 218 – signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in October 2013 – provided relief. Having gone into effect in July 2014, the law pertains to hiring by the State of California, as well as by every city and county within the state. In other words, a person with a criminal record who seeks employment with the city (any city), the county (any county) or with the state can expect not to find a question about prior convictions on the initial application for employment. It is important to note that the law does not apply to private employers within any jurisdiction, only to employment directly with the city, county, or state.

That caveat – that Fair Chance Initiatives only apply to hiring by but not more broadly within local jurisdictions, such as for employment with the city – even that is beginning to change. What can now truly be termed a movement has caught on with major retailers, as well, including big box giants WalMart and Target, both of which have removed the question about prior conviction from initial applications for employment. These successes did not seem likely in 2004, but the tireless work of hundreds of activists, community organizers, formerly incarcerated people and their allies – operating with utter determination and sheer faith – ensured the outcome.

This scholar-activist is heartened by these changes, excited for the opportunities the “Ban the Box” campaign has made possible for countless formerly incarcerated people and their families, and grateful to have been one tiny part of the movement. But the work is far from over. Passage of Fair Employment Ordinances and adoption of them by private employers is just the beginning. My doctoral training reminds me of the importance of researching and documenting outcomes of social services and policies, and Ban the Box is no exception. In an ideal world, the Bureau of Labor Statistics would be collecting data and reporting shifts over time (at local, state, and national levels) on the number of unemployed persons who have conviction histories. But we do not live an ideal world. It will fall upon the shoulders of academics, advocates, and allies to observe and publicize the outcomes of the Ban the Box campaign for an array of stakeholders.

A robust research agenda would examine how formerly incarcerated individuals now perceive the job application process, any shifts in the extent they are now being considered for jobs they were previously excluded from, shifts in the proportion of unemployed Americans who have a conviction history, experiences of employers in implementing the new laws/ordinances, any challenges and/or benefits of employing persons with conviction histories, shifts in recidivism rates among persons with conviction histories, savings to tax-payers of any shifts in recidivism, and more. These questions could be explored at local, state, or national levels. Such data would go a long way in documenting the success of this public policy experiment, promote its expansion and replication, and shed light on any areas in need to improvement.

I will continue to seek ways to advance this movement with and on behalf of formerly incarcerated people, and specifically hope to procure funding to begin to tackle the ambitious research agenda mentioned above. The tide is slowly turning. May I be a wind in the sails of this just and important effort.

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A Reflection on Race, Class and Gender in the Criminal Justice System: The Story of “Rebecca”

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I know a woman who was recently sentenced to 90 days in county jail. She served 45 of those days, and emerged bitter at the system because she believed she would have (or should have) had to serve even fewer of those days. When I heard that she was “peeved” (putting it mildly) about her circumstances, my first thought was, “You should count your blessings, my dear. You have no idea how lucky you are. The color of your skin has spared you a far worse fate.”

Here are a few things you need to know about Rebecca (her name has been changed to protect her anonymity): She is white. She is middle-aged. She is married with two children. She has a professional career. She and her husband own a home on a hill in a trendy and upwardly mobile neighborhood in Los Angeles. She suffers from addiction. (I know this because she has shared this with me personally, and because she called me one night, heavily intoxicated, asking for my help. That is a story for another time.) Her substances of choice were/are alcohol and prescription pain medications. She was sober for many years before she relapsed that night. She was subsequently involved in more than one auto accident while driving under the influence. Children and Family Services have been involved with her family, but the children have never been removed from her care. When she was most recently arrested, she resisted, striking out at the officer with physical force. (She’s a small but fairly scrappy woman.)

White privilege. It’s a cunning and powerful force. Those of us who benefit from having a fair complexion often don’t even recognize how much we enjoy it. We don’t take note each time we walk into a Radio Shack and aren’t watched or followed. We don’t question whether we are safe taking a walk through most neighborhoods. We don’t have reason to believe that our name (which often gives away our ethnic identity) will cause a potential employer to disregard our application. And, as we’ve seen in so many recent and heinous examples, we aren’t presumed to be a threat by law enforcement officials even when we’ve actually been involved in a crime that puts ourselves and/or others in danger.

Of course class privilege was likely at play in this situation, as well. The incident occurred in said upwardly mobile community, not in the “hood,” and one could ascertain that she is a person of means by virtue of the car she drives and the clothes she wears. Might the arresting officer or the prosecutor or the judge have treated her differently if she had been a resident of one of “those” neighborhoods? It is, in many cases, impossible to disentangle the overlapping layers of privilege. Sociologists call it Intersectionality – the various standpoints we occupy in a culture where certain groups are granted privileges while others are surveiled and sanctioned. [In other words, while I might enjoy privilege as a person with White skin from a middle-class background, I am disadvantaged as a woman. A Black man might enjoy certain privileges as a man, but be disadvantaged by his membership in an ethnic minority group, and so forth.]

Which leads me to the gender component of Rebecca’s situation. The fact that she is female may have impacted how the arresting officer treated her, perhaps to her advantage. Would the cop have been more forceful with a male arrestee? Possessing a female body in any other circumstance is typically considered a liability in a society of male privilege, but at the scene of an arrest, a white woman may be more likely to be treated with kid gloves than a white male. On the other hand, statistics have shown that women are often given harsher sentences than men for the same crimes. Did being female perhaps garner her a tougher sentence than her male counterpart might have received?

Gender issues aside, I want to shake some sense into Rebecca. I want her to see that – in comparison to her poor sisters and sisters of color – she got off easy. I’ve worked with, been friends with, and conducted research on formerly incarcerated women for over a decade. Most of the women I’ve spent time with are African American and poor. And most of them committed the same types of crimes that my White friend did. Some of those crimes – like possession of a controlled substance – put no one but the “offender” in danger (unlike driving under the influence does), and none the women I’ve ever met have assaulted a police officer. Yet all of them have been convicted and sentenced; and not to jail time but to state prison time, and not for days but for years. And the majority of those who have minor children have had those children taken into the foster care system – some completely stripped of their parental rights.

So my initial reaction to my White upper-middle-class friend’s 45-day stint in jail did not garner much sympathy from me. But then again, I’ve never been to jail. I’ve never had to endure a single day behind bars, much less 45 days. I have no arrest record, nor do I suffer from an addiction disorder. So who am I to tell her that she is lucky, that she should be grateful?

Yet the fact remains: Our current criminal justice system disproportionately ensnarls and exacts harsher penalties on people of color, a fact that might have brought some humility to my friend who avoided what could have been a far worse fate had she not enjoyed the privilege of occupying a body with White skin. It is not for me to impose this “you should be grateful” view on her. But I hope that we – the collective of beings engaged in this grand social experiment – will pause often to reflect on the ways in which our justice system doles out its retributions and reconsider their necessity, their intensity, their consequences, and their pervasive and persistent double standards.

I don’t believe that those 45 days in jail have improved Rebecca’s life in any way. I don’t know that they have been of benefit to anyone at all. I believe other interventions – such as mandatory substance abuse treatment, anger management, or counseling – might have served all involved stakeholders (she, her family, persons affected by the poor choices she made, residents of the community, taxpayers) better. Is not the same true of the countless others who are like her, save for the color of their skin and their socio-economic standing? Don’t they also deserve solutions that address the root of their problems (which I believe to reside in psychological, behavioral, and perhaps even spiritual realms)?

While Rebecca will likely continue to feel peeved about those 45 days she had to spend in jail (and perhaps rightly so), I will choose to drop my own righteous view that she should just be grateful it wasn’t worse and focus instead on what we can do to ensure that all women swept up in the ever-expanding net of the criminal justice system are treated as what they are – human beings deserving of dignity, compassion, real opportunities for healing and transformation, and second chances.