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 If the offer is withdrawn, the applicant can appeal that decision.
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.