Why Ending Bias Against the Formerly Incarcerated Helps All Americans

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prisoner

Prisoners at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Washington State in a sagebrush growing program. Photo by Bureau of Land Management via Flickr

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.

Glenn Martin

Glenn E. Martin. Photo courtesy JustLeadershipUSA

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.

See also: Federal Prison Director Defends Halfway House Cuts.

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.

4 thoughts on “Why Ending Bias Against the Formerly Incarcerated Helps All Americans

  1. I think the reentry program is an excellent idea !! I also don’t believe us keeping these men / woman in prison forever !! Yes they dud s crime they shouldn’t have done & should be punished but they also gave families outside as well !! When they get out they’ll need jobs !! Let’s give these folks a Chance an not give long sentenceings !! They deserved lives too !!! My husband according to the courts is in there til 37 but we are gonna fight to get him an earlier release !!! Thank you !!! A wife in Michigan

  2. As a lifetime Registered Sex Offender, I am subjected to much more hate and legal obstructions than other felons. Many seem unconstitutional. In Lee County, FL, (Ft Myers) I am banned from libraries, beaches, parks, YMCA, playgrounds, zoos, schools and more and must not have a passport. (Lee County ordinance 11-05) The late Justice Antonin Scalia stated that the registry is not punitive, and thus, constitutional. With Trump’s young and conservative judge appointments, things will not improve in our lifetimes. A class of people have not been so vilified since Nazi Germany.

  3. I could to relate to everything you said. When I left prison 5 years ago, the pivotal step in a new direction was employment. Once I had gainful employment, I started going back to school. When I graduated college, I got into law school (after many schools denying me because of my criminal background). I wanted to go to law school and change my life in such a profound way to hopefully be able to change the stigma around “felons.” I want people to see what a felon is capable of, given some simple opportunities. We are not second class citizens. There is still so much life after prison, and we have the experience with the system to try to make it a better one in the future.

    I stand with the author, I wholeheartedly believe our prison system could be cut in half with the right tools and people standing up to emplement this change.

  4. Good works being done in this world, yet poor choices in filling the federal judicial vacancies threatens many of these good works. True change in our criminal judicial system will be fought hard by the private companies making more money when more people are incarcerated, and just fight against change by the status quo in the system. Do we tackle specific crimes that result in prison time, such as drug possession, one at a time? Do we try Ban the Box type approaches to reducing recidivism? How about ban “the man” approaches, to educate law enforcement and reduce unfair, often illegal, tactics used by police? I don’t know, but piecemeal approaches will not solve the massive problems we face because of the unjust system we have built.

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