Think back to the last time you bought a pair of sunglasses. Think about the person who sold them to you.
Describe that person in one word.
You probably said, “man,” “woman,” “young,” “old,” “energetic,” “smart,” or a similar descriptor.
I’m willing to bet you didn’t say “criminal.”
The irony in that is my being branded a criminal is the reason I could not get a job selling sunglasses after I left prison. I applied as soon as I was released. The manager, Michael, said I was bright and articulate and that I’d make a great salesperson.
Michael said he’d love to hire me. I was excited just to be out of the cage that had confined me for six years. To be this close to the thing that could keep me from ever going back—a job—was even better.
So you understand the debilitating crash of emotion when Michael called me later that day to tell me he couldn’t hire me. He said he couldn’t do so because I was a felon.
I should have been able to apply for that job with an identity that millions of others take for granted: father, husband, son, graduate. But I couldn’t. Those identities were taken from me by the overpowering stigma of the justice system, and I could not retrieve those identities in the course of my application because policies like Ban the Box did not exist.
That’s exactly why I went to Congress this month to testify not just in support of Representative Elijah Cummings’ Fair Chance Act (which would apply a Ban the Box policy to federal agencies and contractors), but also in support of additional, farther-reaching Ban the Box policies that would apply to all employers.
I know formerly incarcerated men and women need job opportunities. From my story and my work as President of JustLeadershipUSA, I know how much employment matters in transitioning away from the shadows of concrete walls and barbed wire fences that darken our lives and diminish our humanity.
The data confirms these personal narratives.
We know that reducing recidivism requires successful reentry. We know successful reentry requires access to meaningful and gainful employment opportunities. And we know that access to employment is fueled by implementation of Ban the Box policies and passage of the Fair Chance Act.
We also know there is tremendous urgency to this situation. Seventy million Americans have a criminal record. One-in-three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime. Each of these people might be told that their worst moment will forever obstruct their access to redemption.
For these men and women, Ban the Box policies are about more than getting a fair shot at a second—or, in many cases, first—chance. These policies demonstrate a government’s commitment to identifying, understanding and eradicating the vile and racist realities of its broken criminal justice system.
Just as importantly, these policies benefit the people who haven’t been directly impacted.
Taxpayers are currently funding a corrosive system that insidiously feeds itself by preventing people trapped in the system from escaping its clutches. Maximizing access to post-incarceration employment is the best way to break the chains that keep us trapped.
Additionally, having a job is what will enable someone to meet his or her myriad financial obligations—rent, food, child support, housing—while also contributing to the tax base and the community at large.
Despite this, and despite the research showing the fundamental importance of Ban the Box policies as key elements of holistic reentry reform, there are people like Jennifer Doleac, an assistant professor at public policy and economics at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, who’d have you believe that these policies should not implemented.
Doleac argues that these policies actually hurt our chances at landing a job.
There are multiple problems in the research that Doleac and her colleagues continue to espouse, including the fact that the data she examines is extremely limited, and that the takeaway conclusions of her report are actually directly refuted by other parts of her own research. But the biggest issues stem from the fact that Doleac seems to lack the lived experience and cultural competency needed to design and thoroughly understand the results of a study on these policies.
As the written testimony that I submitted to Congress makes clear, this insensitivity to the realities of our lived experiences undermines the integrity of her findings, and should force all policymakers to question whether not those findings should be applied to their work.
At the same time, none of us would argue that Ban the Box or the Fair Chance Act are, on their own, comprehensive solutions to the challenges of successful reentry. As the recent Committee on Government and Oversight Reform hearing made clear, significant reinvestment in reentry support services and Bureau of Prisons reentry programming is similarly crucial, as is the commitment of the Bureau of Prisons to actually rededicate itself to the cause of ensuring that those who come into the justice system leave better off than when they entered.
Still, Ban the Box is a vital piece of the puzzle.
Look at the impact these policies have had already. When Dorsey Nunn and his colleagues at All of Us or None started making a values-centered push for these ideas, it wasn’t clear how far they’d get. Yet my being invited to advocate for these policies in the United States Congress speaks volumes about their intrinsic power. Ban the Box can inform and inspire a long overdue conversation about how we treat people and whether or not we make redemption accessible.
And as I hope my story demonstrates, the often-ignored voices of the millions of directly impacted people in this country must drive that conversation, and guide the implementation of whatever reforms we achieve as a result.
Glenn E. Martin is the founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA, a national, member-driven advocacy organization that seeks to cut the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030 by empowering people who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system to drive criminal justice reform. He welcomes comments from readers.