Cornell William Brooks, Esq., recently selected to be President and CEO of the NAACP, and currently President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, spoke at a League of Women Voters’ meeting on the topic “The Beloved Community Behind Bars: A Dream Deferred.” Much of his focus was on the “Ban the Box” movement. Because having a criminal record, for even the smallest offense, severely impacts the chances for employment, Mr. Brooks supports banning the “box,” the question on job applications that asks “Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?”
To help his audience gain perspective about criminal records, Mr. Brooks asked us to picture two old, sepia mugshots—one of an eager, self-possessed young black man, the other of an older, dignified black woman—each with a number stamped under the photo. The mugshots had been found in a dusty file cabinet in Montgomery, Alabama. I think most of us guessed correctly: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. Rosa Parks, American icons with criminal records that few of us knew about. But, Mr. Brooks pointed out, in today’s world, criminal records are digital, are saved on disk, and can be sent anywhere.
One out of three young people in America is arrested, and 65 million Americans have criminal records, often as a result of arrests after being stopped and frisked or for mischief (the kinds of risky things even League members might have done in their sorority days). Joel, a high school senior driving to an interview at Yale, accidentally bumped into a parked car. He was late and didn’t stop to leave his name and insurance information. A day after his Yale interview, he was picked up for hit-and-run. Fortunately, the owner of the dented car was a teacher and, hearing Joel’s story, refused to press charges because she knew a criminal record might jeopardize his acceptance at Yale.
Another example of the absurdity behind some criminal records is the story Mr. Brooks told about a sixty-year-old construction worker who came to the Institute for Social Justice for help. Forty years before, he’d been convicted of possessing five Valium pills that had not been prescribed for him. (Mr. Brooks asked whether League members had ever borrowed medicine from a family member, then quickly added, to laughter, “Don’t raise your hands.”) The resulting criminal record meant either that the construction worker would be fired or that his employer would lose a contract with the state. The only solution was a pardon. The Institute gathered testimony from experts that the worker, after all these years, did not pose a threat, and Governor Chistie pardoned him. To cap his argument, Mr. Brooks pointed out that Barak Obama had admitted in his autobiography to using marijuana, and George W. Bush, in his autobiography, to driving under the influence—yet the American people elected them to the presidency.
A record of incarceration deprives an individual of about $100,000 in income during his prime years. Having 2.4 million people behind bars exerts a $65 billion drag on the economy each year. Besides these economic impacts, are the moral challenges as well: self-esteem, the ability to provide child support, etc. There are also racial implications: for a white male, having a criminal record reduces his chances of being employed by 50%—for a black male, the reduction is 67%. (And even a white male with a record has a better chance at employment than a black male without one.)
For Mr. Brooks, the solution is the Opportunity to Compete Act, which takes the same position regarding hiring as does the U.S. Government and Walmart, the nation’s biggest employer. Under the act, employers would first make an offer and then run a background check for a criminal record. If a record is found and the offer is withdrawn, the prospective employee would have ten days to dispute the record or provide additional information for consideration, such as evidence of rehabilitation. The employer would not have to hire the person but would, if the position has not already been filled, have to explain in writing to the person why the offer is still withdrawn.
I’m with Mr. Brooks, and I hope my readers are too. We need to show the New Jersey Legislature that we support this act. As Mr. Brooks’s examples show, it’s not hard to get a criminal record, especially if you’re black. How many of us hold our jobs because we’re lucky not to have been caught or are privileged enough to afford a lawyer to get us off? Banning the box doesn’t guarantee employment, but it increases the chances that people will be seen for who they are now, not for how their history has marked them.