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Banning ‘the box’ eliminates unfair obstacle to jobs

By Cleat Waters III
Special to the Observer

I’m not going to ask you to extend forgiveness to individuals with conviction histories. What I am going to ask you to consider is whether any reluctance to extend this courtesy is the result of unfair misconceptions and stereotypes.

The Charlotte City Council recently voted to examine a proposed ordinance which eliminates the box a job applicant must check granting the City permission to do a criminal background search.

Under the proposed “Ban the Box” ordinance, the city would still conduct criminal background checks as part of the hiring process, but only after making a conditional offer of employment. Additionally, the ordinance provides the city guidelines to determine if the applicant’s conviction history is relevant to the job they are seeking. If the city denies employment, the ordinance provides the applicant with an opportunity to provide proof of rehabilitation and job suitability.

Opposition to Ban the Box revolves mostly around the idea that there isn’t a problem with asking applicants to check a criminal history box, because “the box” serves public safety. However, the facts don’t support this assumption. Councilman Warren Cooksey suggested that Ban the Box is “a solution in search of a problem” – which is easy to say when you’ve never served a sentence and then went looking for a job. Ask Monique Maddox, who has a conviction history and was one of the speakers at the Council meeting, and she’ll tell you the criminal history box created significant barriers to her job search.

Banning the box is an important step in improving the chances of individuals with criminal histories seeking the one thing that empirically reduces recidivism – a job.

Mecklenburg Criminal Justice Services reports an unemployment rate of 53 percent for inmates returning to Mecklenburg County. Is it a coincidence that the County Sheriff’s Office reports 49 percent of inmates returning to Mecklenburg County are re-arrested within a year of being released? Charlotte’s Center for Community Transitions, a non-profit organization assisting those with conviction histories, reports that 95 percent of its clients who found jobs were still employed after a year and had no further convictions.

Unfair stereotypes drive most of the concerns over safety, but the above statistics show that the great majority of those who find employment are rehabilitating, and are not the problem. Treating everyone with a conviction history like they are on the verge of robbing or murdering isn’t realistic, it’s misinformation. Only a tiny fraction of those with conviction histories are unchangeable criminals undeserving of employment, and the new policy doesn’t alter the city’s ability to exclude those individuals.

A coalition of Charlotte-based community organizations, private businesses, religious institutions, and individuals proposed the reform, which councilwoman LaWana Mayfield championed.

Over the last two years, four North Carolina municipalities, including Durham, have adopted the policy. Several other states and municipalities have either adopted the policy or are studying the issue. So I lied. I am asking you to extend some forgiveness, drop any stereotypes and misconceptions you may have about people with conviction histories, and join us in supporting Charlotte’s Ban the Box movement.

Cleat Walters III is a member of the Civil Rights Clinic at the Charlotte School of Law.
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