New York State representatives are pursuing legislation that further targets a disenfranchised population with few resources to succeed after prison.
Sen. Kenneth P. Lavalle (R-NY) last month proposed a bill to reverse a State University of New York (SUNY) “Ban the Box” initiative enacted in late 2016 by the SUNY Board of Trustees in response to a student-led campaign.
The proposed law would require SUNY schools to include “a question on whether the applicant has been convicted of any violent felony offense” on their applications.
If they are successful, it would bring back a discriminatory and ineffective application process that strips formerly incarcerated individuals of any chance to pursue an education.
Even the reddest states, such as Louisiana, have signed “Ban the Box” laws into state constitutions in the past few years. Formerly incarcerated advocates have been the driving force behind the movement, demonstrating that access to opportunities post-prison results in safer communities.
There is no scientific evidence to support criminal records as a predictor of campus safety. In fact, research shows that colleges that restrict access based on criminal histories do not have demonstrably lower crime rates.
If we want people coming home to stay out of prison and engage in society, shouldn’t we be encouraging them to get an education, in order to better provide for themselves, their families, and their communities? By blocking access to education, colleges are perpetuating cycles of crime and poverty—without opportunities to become economically mobile, people often have no choice but to revert to old habits and behaviors.
The “Box” has been proven to discourage and discriminate against applicants with criminal convictions. Issues with the “Box” are two-fold: it acts as a deterrent for those with criminal records to finish their applications, and it allows universities to immediately reject applicants based on long-held social biases.
A 2009 study looking at SUNY’s use of the “Box” found that for every student rejected by SUNY admissions committees because of a felony conviction, 15 did not complete their applications due to the experience of facing the checkbox: an indication that those with convictions are not welcome at SUNY schools.
If this is an attempt to protect students, as some legislators have said, it’s misplaced. Most on-campus crimes are committed by students with no prior criminal history, and often relate to binge-drinking, athletics and Greek life.
SUNY made its decision to ban the box based on research. Why would New York State legislators move us backward?
I am living proof that the Box fails to do anything other than discriminate. I was rejected from SUNY after checking the “Box” on its application. Thankfully, I was able to return to a school I had enrolled in prior to my incarceration and I earned my undergraduate degree. Now, I am the Executive Director of a nonprofit and a graduate student at Columbia University.
Education is a highly effective tool for changing the trajectory of one’s life. This is especially true for individuals with criminal convictions. The nonprofit I now run, College & Community Fellowship, helps formerly incarcerated women earn their college degrees. To date, our Fellows have earned more than 300 degrees (including a PhD and a J.D.!), and less than one percent have gone back to prison in our 17 years of operation.
That translates to more than 300 degree-holding women who are now active participants in their communities, and who contribute to their local economies and our society as a whole.
Imagine what the numbers would show if the “Box” was banned across the nation.
It would be a grave injustice to walk back the policies students and advocates have worked so hard to change. Bringing back the “Box” perpetuates our system of mass incarceration, and targets communities that are languishing under crushing economic burdens.
We must see to it that legislation such as this is promptly discarded.
Vivian D. Nixon is the Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship (CCF), a nonprofit committed to helping formerly incarcerated women earn their college degrees. She is a Columbia University Community Scholar and a recipient of the John Jay Medal for Justice, the Ascend Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, and the Soros Justice Fellowship. She welcomes readers’ comments.