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.