CHARLES O. OCHIE: Time to consider banning the box

OPINION: By requiring job applicants to admit to felony convictions on job applications, they are denied employment

Charles O. Ochie Sr.

Charles O. Ochie Sr.

Advocates of re-entry are professionals and ordinary people who care for the safety of their community and want fairness and equity for every citizen. They believe that criminal activity is wrong and harms the community and those who engage in criminal activity should be punished according to the law. They do not believe that criminals should go free and or unpunished when they commit crimes and offend other citizens and the society. There is also a universal belief that those who are dangerous to children and to society and those who continue to make criminality a means of livelihood should remain locked up. Another belief also is that those who offend society by committing crimes and serving their time should be able to make a living when they are released from the criminal justice system into the community.

We already know that nationally more than 700, 000 citizens are released each year from prisons into communities. According to 9-5 organization, 358 people are returned each year from prison into to the city of Albany and Dougherty County. In the last five years, 1,841 Dougherty County residents were released from prison. These individuals can become employed and pay taxes instead of taxes being paid on them. But, unfortunately, discrimination and illegal employment practices prevent these returning citizens from the opportunity to compete in employment situations because employment application requires that they disclose their criminal history record prior to an interview. This automatically shuts out these returning citizens from fair employment competition which now leads to the campaign “Ban the Box.”

Ban the box is a national movement to end employment discrimination against formerly incarcerated persons by removing the question requiring job applicants to disclose their criminal backgrounds. Employment applications include a check box that asks the derogatory and humiliating question: “Have you ever been arrested and/or convicted of a felony?” The fact is that many of these people have not been re-arrested for good number of years, but still are not able to obtain gainful employment because they are automatically excluded and screened out by checking the box.

Nationally, 12 states and 51 cities in the U.S. have banned the box. In Georgia in 2014, Gov. Nathan Deal has issued an executive order to ban the box on all state employment applications through administrative procedure. In 2013, the city of Atlanta banned the box on city employment applications and many other cities are contemplating doing just that.

Albany/Dougherty County should consider banning the box for a number of reasons: First, Dougherty County receives the 6th largest number of people returning home from prison in Georgia. In 2012, 360 individuals from Dougherty were released from prison. While it is difficult to estimate the total number of Dougherty County residents with criminal records, it is probably safe to say they are in multiple hundreds.

Second, as earlier stated, in the last five years, 1,841 Dougherty County residents were released from prison, indicating there are perhaps thousands of qualified workers living in Dougherty facing “the box” employment barrier. Removing the box on employment will probably allow these returned citizens to be selected for an interview based on their skills, qualifications and education rather than for past mistakes and bad choices, at least for a lot of them. Third, this will positively affect our recidivism rate and save tax payers millions of dollars for those recidivists who return to prison.

Many believe that the box on applications impacts families. Nearly 65 percent of incarcerated women have minor children and statistics is gloomier if racial differences among women are examined.

We all know that steady employment provides much more than a paycheck for all citizens. For these returning citizens, it is definitely much more than a job. It reinforces and augments the work experience and teaches much needed skills, as well as keeps them motivated from returning to illegal activities that got them in trouble with the law in the first place. It helps them build up their work history and earn the respect and recommendations of their employers, as it would for every other person returning from work after many years of absence. Further, they stand the chance of successful reintegration into society, moving up the career ladder, and living a satisfying and crime-free life.

There have been some positive effects in some states/cities where the percentage of people with criminal records who were looking for work went up from 6 percent-60 percent after the ban the box ordinance was passed. One can therefore argue that if this employment barrier is removed, Dougherty may gain at least 3,465 new workers based on data provided by 9-5 organization. It may worth considering.

Dr. Charles O. Ochie Sr. is a professor of Criminal Justice and chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and Forensic at Albany State University. He is also the co-founder/president/CEO of Albany Second Chance.