I have long complained about the failure of governments to engage in any sort of meaningful re-entry for inmates. For a vast majority of released felons, prison is a revolving door. Without any training, education or skills, job prospects are dismal. With no job, there is no money and where there is no money, there is the lure of crime to make some quickly.
Which is why I was pleasantly surprised this morning, while listening to Where We Live on NPR. The guest was John DeStefano, mayor of New Haven, and he was discussing the policy he seeks to implement in the city: ban the box. No, this is not some traffic related policy, as I first thought, but a clever scheme aimed at integrating ex-felons back into the community.
Ban the box refers to banning employment applications from listing a “box” that asks applicants whether they are ex-felons. This allows ex-felons to be on the same footing as any other applicant, by preventing would-be employers from discarding them at the get-go. I’m embarrassed that this story has escaped my attention for three months now, but the wonderful New Haven Independent is all over it:
The proposal directs the city not just to remove the box, but to refrain from asking applicants about their criminal history during job interviews. If the city decides to offer an applicant a job, then the human resources office will do a criminal background check. If a conviction shows up, then the applicant will return for a subsequent interview to determine whether or not that background renders him or her unfit for the job.
What this does is gives ex-felons a fighting chance at reintegration. And this also gives the city of New Haven some hope. DeStefano has long been complaining about the dumping of released inmates into his city, without any support or supervision from the State. He’s stepped up and taken a route that might lead to a reduction in crime. On the show this morning, he explained his reasoning thusly (and I am paraphrasing):
People say that everybody deserves a second chance – and yes they do – but that’s not why I’m doing this. If the ex-felons are positively engaged in the community and have the hope of a job, then there’s a greater chance that they won’t return to a life of crime and won’t be running around our streets shooting other people.
The numbers are telling. An estimated 70 percent of non-fatal shooting victims and 50 percent of murder suspects have criminal records. Studies have shown that ex-cons who have jobs are less likely to commit new crimes. And banning the box is the first step toward reducing crime and re-integrating felons back into society. It gives them hope and when they have hope, we have hope.
One person after another testified that having to confront the box creates a sense of hopelessness for ex-offenders. “I can’t even tell you how I feel just to even look at that box on an application,” said Derike Anderson. “It’s almost like all hope is lost, because I gotta answer that question … I feel if that question wasn’t there, I’d have half a chance, just to get myself in the door and into an interview, I think I can sell myself very well.”
Kudos, New Haven, you’ve done it again.