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A Job Can Help Stop Prison's Revolving Door

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A job can help formerly incarcerated people turn their lives around, take care of themselves and their families, and make positive contributions to their communities.

However, one small but powerful barrier -- a box on a job application -- stands in the way of formerly incarcerated people getting a second chance to live productive lives. In California and around the country, the applications of otherwise qualified candidates are summarily tossed into the trash bin because of the box that requires applicants to disclose any prior offenses, even for arrests that are very old or minor.

More Americans than ever are being impacted by this unfair hiring practice. The National Employment Law Project estimates that nearly 65 million Americans, or one in four adults, have arrest or conviction records that often follow them throughout their lives. In California, an estimated seven million people have criminal records that might cause them to lose out on even the chance at a job.

There is good news. A movement to "ban the box" is growing around the country, with cities, counties and states moving to replace that box with a new process that allows human resource managers to ask the right questions at the right time. Of course employers should be able to make sure the people they are seriously considering for a job haven't committed crimes that would make hiring them inappropriate for a particular position. But the door need not be slammed shut before anyone with a prior arrest or conviction gets a chance to compete.

More than 50 U.S. cities and counties, such as New York City and 10 in California, have joined the movement. Nine states, including Minnesota, New Mexico and Colorado, are building on the success of local initiatives by adopting similar policies. These reforms have been supported by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives alike. The state of California could be next.

"Ban the box" would direct California's local and state government agencies to stop requesting criminal background information on job applications, and instead ask those questions after determining whether a given candidate meets the minimum job qualifications. Agencies may still ask direct questions about criminal history in interviews and screen out candidates with prior convictions as the hiring process progresses. But eliminating the box gives motivated and qualified job seekers a chance at getting their foot in the door to prove that they are the right person for the job.

That's what happened to Linda, who didn't think she'd be able to find a job in Richmond, California, after serving time behind bars for a drug offense. Despite the obstacles, she was determined to give back to the community she called home and needed to find a way to be a supportive mother to her son. While looking for a job, she spent her time volunteering in her community. Then, in 2012, Richmond passed a policy removing the question of conviction histories from city job applications. Linda finally had the chance to interview for a job where she talked about her work as a community advocate, her participation in violence prevention programs, and her active churchgoing. The city found the right candidate for the position. And Linda has been working successfully ever since, and is now a new grandmother.

There is no question that stable employment is a powerful crime-fighting tool, helping individuals rebuild their lives and avoid returning to jail or prison. Banning the box makes it possible for the millions of people with criminal records to at least be able to compete for a job. In turn, we all benefit when we can ensure that people have a fair chance at getting their lives back on track.