Why "Ban the Box" Matters: Durham's Success Story

Want proof that "ban the box" policies help people with criminal records secure good jobs while helping employers hire good workers? You'll find it in Durham, North Carolina, where government hiring of people with records has increased dramatically since the city and county removed questions about prior convictions from job applications.

In 2011, the last year before the city took that step, only 2 percent of hires had records. Under the new policy, that figure rose to 4.5 percent in 2012, 9.4 percent in 2013, and 15.5 percent in the first quarter of 2014. Since adopting a similar policy in late 2012, the county has more than doubled the number of new hires with records.

And it has happened without compromising public safety, the biggest argument against banning the box. There has been no increase in workplace crime in either the city or the county government, and no employee has been fired because of illegal activity.

The Durham results mark the latest success in a growing national movement to eliminate an employment barrier that has no benefits but enormous costs for formerly incarcerated people, their families and communities, local and state economies, and overall growth.

"Banning the box" builds stronger economies

About 70 million Americans, disproportionately African American and Latino, have conviction records. Of the roughly 700,000 people who are released from state prisons annually, as many as 75 percent will still have no job a year later — in large part because they are effectively disqualified the minute they check off an application box indicating a past arrest or conviction. Steady employment reduces the risk of recidivism, and so do "ban the box" policies.  A new study of Hawaii's 1998 "ban the box" law found it lowered the odds of repeat offending by 57 percent.

The economy benefits, too. A 2011 study found that putting just 100 formerly incarcerated people back to work would increase their lifetime earnings by $55 million, increase their income tax contributions by $1.9 million, and boost sales tax revenues by $770,000, while saving $2 million a year by keeping them out of the criminal justice system.

Evidence like this has persuaded more than 10 states, 60 cities and counties, and some of the nation's largest employers, including Wal-Mart and Target, to remove questions about arrests and convictions from initial job applications. In North Carolina, six additional jurisdictions, including the city governments of Raleigh and Fayetteville, have followed Durham's lead.  Grassroots advocates are gearing up for a campaign in 2015 to remove the box on state government job applications.

"This work is going to benefit our entire state and our entire country, because our economic vitality is at stake," said Daryl V. Atkinson, an attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. "It is so important to have good policies that create an environment where everyone can be successful."

Skills and talent trump past convictions

"Ban the box" policies do not prohibit employers from checking on a prospective employee's background. They simply delay it, giving applicants with records a fair shot at proving they are qualified for the job. The strongest policies (like in Minnesota) cover private employers as well as government employees. Durham's policies apply only to public employees, not government contractors or other businesses.

Under the policies, prospective employees are not asked about convictions on job applications or during interviews. A background check is conducted only after the applicant has received a conditional job offer. One reason the policies are so successful is that the vetting process includes important civil rights and privacy protections for applicants:

  • They have the right to check the accuracy of the record and to submit statements about rehabilitation.
  • The human resources department conducts the background check. The applicant's prospective supervisor and co-workers never learn about conviction history.
  • Only a top government official may rescind an offer of employment because of a record, and only after establishing a direct relationship between the crime and the job. This almost never happens — in Durham County, 96 percent of people with records who were recommended for a job ultimately were hired, even after the background check.

"Skills and qualifications trump a record," Atkinson said.

He should know. As a college student in 1996, he pled guilty to a first-time nonviolent drug offense and spent 40 months in prison under Alabama's mandatory sentencing law. The consequences of incarceration followed him long after his release: his driver's license was suspended, he was denied federal student aid and admission to numerous schools, and he was turned away from jobs.

But with strong family and community support he persisted and eventually graduated from college and law school. Atkinson is licensed to practice law in Minnesota and North Carolina. Recently, he was honored as a White House Champion for Change for his work to help people with records overcome barriers to success.

"I tell my story not to give kudos to myself but to illustrate the human capacity of people who are put in cages every day," Atkinson said. "Not everyone will be blessed with the familial and community support that I had, which is why it's important that society create secondary support systems and adopt effective reentry policies like ‘ban the box' for people leaving the criminal justice system."

Read the rest of the October 9, 2014 America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.