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'Previous Convictions' Questions on Job Applications Condemn People to a Different Kind of Prison

Forcing the formerly incarcerated to answer that question when applying for jobs — or for apartments, student loans, and many other things — amounts to structural discrimination.
Photo via Flickr

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There is a civil rights movement currently taking place in the United States that many Americans are unaware of — a movement by and for the formerly incarcerated that is changing not only how society thinks about us, but how we think about ourselves.

A major facet of the movement is the quest to end structural discrimination, which is the enemy of successful re-entry into society. Each year in the United States, about 688,000 people are released from prison, and we know firsthand that structural discrimination is primarily responsible for a shameful national recidivism rate that sees two out of every three of those people return to prison.


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Many job seekers may not think twice about the box on job applications that must be checked if you've ever been convicted of a crime. But it is dreaded by the formerly incarcerated. Luckily, it's a form of discrimination that is being fought through the Ban The Box campaign, which has succeeded in eliminating the question from public employment applications in 13 states and more than 70 cities and counties. And since many public entities insist that private vendors with whom they work adopt their employment policies, the reach of the campaign is increased even more.

A wide variety of important forms ask about conviction history — apartment rentals, insurance, student loans, college admissions — putting the formerly incarcerated at a huge disadvantage.

But our vision for the campaign reaches beyond just employment applications. A wide variety of important forms ask about conviction history — apartment rentals, insurance, student loans, college admissions — putting the formerly incarcerated at a huge disadvantage. The question can even effectively serve as a proxy for a mandatory question about the race of the applicant, which would otherwise be illegal.

The greater social change we are seeking will not come from policy change alone — and ultimately, Ban The Box is more than just policy work. It signals to the formerly incarcerated that we are entitled to fairness, and it raises the bar on how we expect to be treated as human beings. True social change will result from empowering people who are directly affected by structural discrimination. And Ban The Box is just one example of the kinds of effective solutions that emerge thanks to the creativity and dedication of the formerly incarcerated.


Those of us whose lives are most at stake must lead our own movement. Empowered people make better community members and, ultimately, better parents. Despite the 67 percent national recidivism rate, our grassroots political movement All of Us or None, which launched Ban the Box, has not lost a single member to prison since we began organizing in 2003.

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And so the Ban the Box movement — along with many other initiatives to improve the lives of the formerly incarcerated — is about more than what it may seem on the surface. It's about removing a discriminatory question from applications. But it's also about healthcare for families. It's about educational opportunities. And it's about economic stability in marginalized communities.

Dorsey Nunn is the executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and the co-founder of All of Us or None.

Photo via Flickr