EDITORIAL: Ban the box — and hear them out

The York Dispatch

Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time — especially not in the United States, which has been near the top of global incarceration rates for years.

An oft-cited statistic from a few years back shows the land of the free had more than 4 percent of the world’s population, but was home to nearly 25 percent of all prisoners.

Keep in mind: We’re not necessarily talking about hardened, habitual criminals, or murderers or rapists.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, one in five U.S. inmates is locked up for a drug offense. As recently as 2013, just less than half of state prison populations were made up of nonviolent offenders, the U.S. Justice Department reported.

All told, as many Americans have criminal convictions as have college degrees, the Brennan Center for Justice reported in 2015.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich, left, speaks while Representative Carol Hill-Evans looks  on as Hill-Evans and Lt. Gov. Mike Stack host Pathways to Pardons, an informational event, at Crispus Attucks Community Center in York City, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

So what happens after these many men and women supposedly have repaid their debts to society?

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They are not necessarily welcomed back with open arms, and they might find themselves continuing to pay a price — shut out from employment opportunities long after the criminal justice system is done with them.

The Brennan Center for Justice cites a 2009 Justice Department study that found “a past criminal conviction of any sort reduced the likelihood of a job offer by 50 percent. Moreover, the negative effect of having a conviction in their criminal history was found to be twice as large for black job-seekers as compared to their white counterparts.”

Of course employers want “trustworthy, responsible workers,” but the sheer number of people with criminal records suggests “valuable potential employees are being overlooked,” the center writes.

Concerns about past convictions “lead employers to pass over qualified employees for less competent ones,” according to the center. “Likewise, weary workers with arrest records may gravitate toward occupations that are less selective, ending up in jobs that may not ask about past arrests, but that often pay less and are a poorer match for their skills.”

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The Brennan Center is among the chorus of criminal justice reformers advocating to “ban the box” that requires would-be employees to acknowledge past convictions on job applications.

That doesn’t mean an employer can’t ask about a criminal record, which would likely come to light in a background check at any rate. It just means an applicant has a chance to make his or her case.

"To me, it's fair to at least get past that first 10 seconds to actually be evaluated for who you are; what your skills are," said York City Mayor Michael Helfrich, who has found political success despite a well-known, decades old criminal conviction.

"When you have a box to check if you have any kind of criminal history, that just goes into the trash in a lot of cases," he said.

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As a policy, York did away with the box on city job applications a while ago, but the city council now is considering an ordinance that would make that policy law.

The York County Economic Alliance supports the move, which Kevin Schreiber, the organization’s president, says eliminates a severe impediment to applicants who are trying to find gainful employment.

Scheiber noted that the national unemployment rate is currently at 4 percent, and as the economy improves, the job market will become more competitive.

Prior criminal convictions will continue to be a factor in hiring, he said.

But eliminating the box on applications will give some people an opportunity they didn’t have before — a foot in the door and a few minutes to make their case.

"Ultimately, it's about allowing people to compete for jobs based on merit," Schreiber said.

We believe that’s all many of these job-seekers want — a fair shot.

And we hope the York City Council gives it to them.