Ban the Box but abandon the ex-felon: the Kennard Ray saga

We are a country whose favorite pastime is not football, but incarceration. In such a country, we take delight in locking up young, minority men from the age of 14 to the age of death. We disproportionately incarcerate men of color and we saddle them after the fact of their convictions by heaping consequences upon consequences that are so onerous that almost no one, once burdened by the shackles of a felony, can free himself of them and re-enter Valhalla: middle class America. Onerous and mercurial probation conditions and registries and the constant mass media coverage are enough to drive most men mad.

Standing against this tide that inevitably washes out any traces of opportunity is a thing called “ban the box”. I’ve written about Ban the Box since at least 2009. It’s a policy [more information here – PDF.] that “bans” a box on employment forms asking if the applicant has a criminal record.

The purpose of this is to ensure that people aren’t denied employment simply because they have a criminal record. Cities and states that have enacted BTB policies are required to complete the application process, make a conditional offer of employment to the applicant and then conduct a background check. At that point the applicant can voluntarily disclose any relevant record and explain it. The employer can then choose to continue with employment or withdraw the offer. If the offer is withdrawn, the applicant can appeal that decision.

It’s a bloody brilliant idea that seeks to make the procedure a “record-blind” procedure, thus forcing employers to make decisions based on experience and talent and suitability for the job1.

Hartford, the capital of Connecticut, has such an ordinance [PDF] that requires “banning the box”2.

But the problem with Ban the Box, just as with other rules of equality and fairness the Government is entrusted with enforcing, is that someone has to really want to.

Ban the Box is nothing without political backing or the fortitude of the hirer to stand behind her decision to offer a job to someone with a criminal record. We3 are aware that there is a large section of the population for whom a generic criminal is worse than the genetic offspring of Osama Bin Laden, Obama bin Barack and Adolf Hitler combined. These are the people who comment on news stories.

These are the people who are going to be outraged with pitchforks and demand that the newspaper investigate why the city is giving a job to a criminal when there are perfectly good people in America who aren’t criminals and need a job. In other words, people incapable of nuance and context.

If the policy is to succeed, it takes someone with the conviction4 to say “I am standing by my decision to hire this individual because they are qualified for the job and will be an asset, despite the criminal history of their distant past.”

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra apparently is not such a man. On Tuesday, he announced that he was hiring a man named Kennard Ray as a his Deputy Chief of Staff. On Wednesday, Mr. Ray had withdrawn his name from consideration because “questions were asked about his criminal record“. Mr. Ray had a criminal record:

Ray’s criminal history includes a 1997 conviction for the sale of narcotics, a 1998 conviction for possession of narcotics, a 1998 conviction for carrying a pistol without a permit and a 2004 conviction for criminal possession of a gun.

Shit, you can get that record in Hartford just by driving through the city5. Mayor Segarra had this to say:

“Mr. Ray is a qualified individual with solid references from former supervisors and community leaders,” Segarra said. “However, public servants, especially those in leadership positions, must be held to a higher standard.”

I am at a loss to understand what that means. If Mr. Ray was utterly qualified for the job and came with strong recommendations and a demonstrated dedication to the city of Hartford and public service, then the fact of his criminal convictions should not alter the equation one iota. In fact, Mayor Segarra didn’t seem too perturbed by the fact that this individual might suddenly become undesirable because he might turn out to have a criminal record, demonstrated by the fact that when the Hartford Courant contacted the Mayor’s Office on Wednesday, one day after announcing the hiring, he had not yet conducted the background check6.

And so something happened when the Courant contacted him and he realized that Mr. Ray has a criminal record. Either Mr. Ray suddenly became unappealing solely because of his criminal record, or Mayor Segarra got scared of potential “bad press” and suggested to Mr. Ray that he might want to withdraw.

He certainly could have taken a firm stance and said that this is America, the purported land of second chances, where we love redemption and the underdog and that the purpose of Ban the Box was to permit such hires and that it would set a tremendous example for the community.

That doesn’t seem to be what happened and it certainly isn’t the stance taken by the Mayor in public. It also isn’t something that has been implied by Mr. Ray.7

It’s sad. Here was a perfect opportunity to explain to residents of a city with a massive crime problem and an even bigger reintegration problem that people are deserving of second chances. That people are better than the worst thing that they’ve done and that there is no shame in hiring someone with a criminal record – and to a position of trust and importance at that.

But instead the Mayor wants to “review” the policy and perhaps revise it to conduct background checks before job offers are made, which would render Ban the Box completely useless.

Because one should only do the right thing if it looks good.

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For more, see The Hartford Guardian; Real Hartford.

 

  1. Or other empirically relevant factors like race, gender, weight. I’m kidding.
  2. Don’t come to me with your “FREE CAPITALISM!” bullshit. These laws so far only apply to governmental entities. Private businesses are free to discriminate.
  3. You and I.
  4. Get it?
  5. Somewhat of an exaggeration.
  6. He claims and so does Mr. Ray, that the ordinance prohibits the criminal records check from being conducted prior to the first day of employment. That is illogical and flatly not in the text of the ordinance. If it is in a regulation adopted pursuant to the ordinance, I am not aware of it.
  7. I don’t know who suggested the withdrawal; whether Ray did it himself or whether it was a joint decision, but it’s a logical inference that the mayor didn’t put his foot down and say he was willing to fight.

12 thoughts on “Ban the Box but abandon the ex-felon: the Kennard Ray saga

  1. toddc

    I hadn’t heard about Ban the Box, and while I agree it seems like a good idea, I don’t understand why it allows the fact of a prior criminal record to be a hiring factor at all. If someone has been found guilty of any crime, that person then gets punished by serving whatever sentence he or she is given. Once that’s done, that should be the end of it. Price paid. Why do we punish people for life by allowing that record to be a factor in future employment? I just don’t get it.

    Reply
    1. Rowan Badger

      Some crimes are relevant, though.

      If you’re convicted of embezzlement and fraud, I’m happy to give you a job as an x-ray technician, but not as an accountant. If you’ve been convicted of child sexual abuse, you might be a great accountant but I don’t want you working in the onsite daycare. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to put some restrictions on second chances, especially with pedophiles, who have such a high rate of recommitting similar crimes. So you get someone with a felony into a career-change job training program so that he’s not put into situations that trigger old habits or associations, because he’s not incapable of being a productive member of society, he’s just not the best person to do certain things.

      Reply
      1. Plato

        “Pedophile” is not a crime, nor do sex offenders have a general high recidivism rate. This is an myth dispelled by looking at empirical data. The US has made sone of the worst laws (“three-strikes”, Adam Walsh Act, Patriot Act) when they are afraid.

        Reply
  2. Pingback: Real Hartford » Community Backs Existing Ordinance While Original Supporter Caves

  3. kemn

    This also shows up in housing…it was a real pain finding a rental with my wife having an old felony on her record…(PTSD episode gone bad and a really piss-poor public defender who was just telling people to plead guilty)…

    Reply
  4. Tiana Hercules

    I, truly appreciated this post and an overview of our ban the box policy, which many are ignorant to even in our own City. I am dismayed that once again politics trumps doing what is right and good for the City of Hartford. Mr. Ray would have been a great example and asset to the Mayor’s office.

    How do we decry to those who have served time in prison to change their lives if we are not willing to stand by and behind them? Many worked diligently to ban the box in Hartford and it seems that their hard work is at risk. I hope Hartford does not allow this to happen as banning ban the box–will only serve to further marginalize men and women in our City who are seeking to reshape their lives.

    It would make more sense to only withdraw an offer of employment if the crime in question is directly related to the job function, and poses a potential risk to the public. The pedophile example is pretty obvious where hiring a sex offender to look after children would place the employee, employer and of course children at risk.

    In the example at hand; there does not seem to be the same connection or concern, and rather the experiences that Mr. Ray has faced puts him in a better position than most to relate and advocate for and highlight concerns of the Hartford community.

    Reply
  5. Gerard

    I’ll try to at least keep my Free Capitalism bullshift succinct: due to a myriad of regulatory issues, labor has become expensive relative to everything else (e.g. automation, outsourcing). With nominal unemployment a persistent 7% and labor participation rates (http://money.cnn.com/2013/09/06/news/economy/labor-force-participation/) indicating long term structural unemployment, not hiring qualified workers because of prior contact with the legal system is a luxury an individual business can afford. Given the publicity like this ( http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=123884 ) when things go wrong, hiring excons is arguably a risk a prudent business would avoid.

    I concur that society as a whole suffers by making those who have had contact with the legal system unemployable but believe fixing that requires economic as well as legal changes.

    Reply
  6. rob

    You know what else is devastating young, minority men? Gun violence.

    This guy has been convicted for illegally carrying a gun not once but twice. I wouldn’t want a person who may well be carrying a deadly weapon working for me. I wouldn’t ask the people I have working for me now to work alongside someone who might pull out a deadly weapon at any time.

    How is that unreasonable?

    Reply

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