“Ban the Box” efforts across the country seek to level the playing field.
Competition for job openings can be intense. Applicants leverage their work histories and skill sets and seek opportunities that align with their abilities, knowing that countless other individuals are out there vying for the same spots. Besides the competition, many candidates are forced to complete a section of the job application that may essentially remove them from consideration, a bureaucratic hurdle that can render their job qualifications null and void.
Most municipal, state, and federal job applications include a box to be be checked if the applicant has ever been convicted of a felony. A hiring manager that finds this box checked will draw immediate, often unfair conclusions about the applicant, and may be more likely to file the application in waste basket under the desk.
Luckily, changes are underway to remove the box from applications that will level the playing field for all job candidates. The City Council in Petersburg, Virginia, passed a resolution on September 3 to remove the felony screener on preliminary city employment applications, becoming the latest municipality to become part of this national trend.
Various campaigns seeking to “Ban the Box” consider these small victories in a larger war. One of those campaigns is Good Seed Good Ground, a Virginia-based organization whose mission is to rebuild the lives of troubled youth and young adults.
Renita Parker, Executive Director of Good Seed Good Ground, is well aware of the impact of unfair and discriminatory hiring practices.
In every city we went to, people know the hardship of getting a job with a black mark on your record. 95% of what we do is help people find jobs and the majority of the people we work with have records,” Parker explains. “We weren’t getting anywhere. Employers will not hire someone if they’ve ever had a felony.
Petersburg joins other Virginia cities, including Newport News, Richmond, Norfolk and Portsmouth, in adopting hiring policies that are more fair and inclusive. What does this mean to the movement? Parker and other grassroots prison reformers are masters at harnessing the power of a little momentum and transforming it into tomorrow’s fuel. Since change is notoriously slow, good mileage is key.
“We’re trying to bring more cities onboard and make it a statewide effort,” says Parker. “After we get about 10-15 cities to adopt the policy, then we can approach the state and reach out to the governor about making a statewide change and ultimately get a bill sponsored and passed into law.”
Ban the Box campaigns, along with other high-profile prison reform movements, have picked up steam nationally. A growing number of states and cities have revamped hiring practices and now use job applications without the felony checkbox. Recently, the California legislature passed a bill that would forbid state and local agencies from forcing candidates to disclose criminal convictions on job applications.
Although Parker and her allies could claim these victories for themselves, she acknowledges the broader network and deflects much of the credit towards the National Employment Law Project (NELP). Recently, Good Seed Good Ground joined NELP which helped them streamline their logistical efforts and organize their materials.
Meanwhile, across the country, countless job candidates with prior records stare upon the stark white sheet of their job application, and check the box. Is a debt to society ever really paid in full?