What is the “Ban the Box” Initiative?

President Barack Obama will certainly be remembered by his many achievements during two terms in office, and his “Ban the Box” initiative will be warmly celebrated by many American families affected by the specter of a criminal history.

Ban the Box is an attempt at making it easier for job applicants with blemished police records to rejoin society. The concept is simple: most employment applications include a checkbox that asks about the criminal history of a job hunter. In most cases, this box appears near the top of the first page of the application form, and it often inquires about whether an applicant has ever been convicted or arrested (whether or not they applied for bail). As a White House initiative, Ban the Box would get rid of this checkbox so that employers can first assess an applicant’s qualifications before moving on to inquiring about his or her criminal history.

Why Ban the Box?

The problem with asking questions about criminal backgrounds during the early stages of the application process is that it creates a culture of exclusion. Employers are too willing to dismiss an applicant who checks “yes” on the box, and the dismissal is often final, with prejudice, without evaluating skills, and without inquiring as to why the box was checked. Not only does this practice create obstacles for applicants but also for employers who may be missing out on job seekers with great potential to be star workers.

When applicants encounter these boxes on job applications, they often read instructions that indicate they must disclose everything related to a criminal background, from convictions to jail sentences and from arrests to investigations. In some cases, applicants are given one or two lines to explain their unique situations.

Let’s say a woman applies for a job as an electronics technician; she looks at the application and sees the box next to a question directing her to check “yes” if she has ever been convicted or even arrested of any crime. The applicant thinks back to a time when she was younger and arrested for domestic violence after a brief fight with her partner; after spending a few hours in jail and going through the bail bonds process, her case was eventually dismissed. According to the application’s instructions, the applicant must check “yes” even though her situation was resolved without legal repercussions.

Under the exclusionary doctrine created by this box, an employer would pass on the above-mentioned applicant without even assessing her skills as an electronic technician. For all parties involved, this is a loss situation; applicants are stigmatized by their legal backgrounds while employers end up hiring workers who may lack skills and experience.

Obama’s Criminal Justice Reform

Ban the Box is part of a larger strategy of criminal justice reform undertaken by President Obama, whose recent visit to a federal prison made history as the first of its kind. The greater goal is to start winding down the American prison industrial complex and to make it easier for offenders to rejoin society.

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