Column: Ban the Box, Hire Fairly

Job application "criminal conviction boxes" are unfair penalty

In the final installment of The Washtenaw Jail Diary, the former inmate writes: “What I would do after my release, I had no idea. Who would hire a convicted felon in a lousy economy?”

ban box graphic

Typical felony box on an employment application.

The fact is, not many employers will. And that has an impact on the likelihood that former prisoners will find their way back into the corrections system.

In 2008, approximately 12,500 citizens returned from prison to the communities of Michigan. Within two years, nearly half of them will return to prison.

And research by the Justice Policy Center at The Urban Institute has shown that a principal factor in such high recidivism is a lack of employment opportunities. It is not a lack of adequate qualifications, but rather the social stigma surrounding a felony conviction that prevents many ex-prisoners from landing a job – and the lack of a job that leads them to offend again.

Social service programs can assist ex-offenders in finding housing, accessing mental/physical health treatment, and job-readiness training.

However, it is employers who must ultimately step up and give all qualified individuals a fair opportunity for jobs, if ex-prisoners are to have a fair chance to become stable providers for themselves and their families.

One way to ensure a fair shot is to prohibit discrimination based on criminal history – by banning that box on application forms that requires applicants to check it if they’ve been convicted of a crime.

In most cases, prison sentences are a way to repay a “debt to society.” But the stigma of a criminal conviction often follows a person long after that debt is supposed to have been settled and they have returned to the community.

Public Benefits

While steady employment can serve as a stabilizing force in the life of an ex-offender, prohibiting employment discrimination based on criminal history can also produce financial benefit for both the understanding, open-minded employer, and also for the public at large. Many businesses can receive tax credits for hiring individuals with a felony background, as they are considered a “target population” for unemployment reduction by the federal government.

Society benefits from a gainfully employed ex-offender, because the money spent to house an incarcerated citizen can be used for other programs, or to reduce the state’s budget deficit. The Michigan Department of Corrections annual budget is around $2 billion – that reflects an average annual cost per prisoner of more than $32,000.

What Other Communities Are Doing

To discourage employers from unfairly denying job opportunities to qualified people solely because of a past criminal conviction, many cities and counties throughout the U.S. have adopted ordinances or policies that require employers to eliminate the box on the application asking applicants to disclose past criminals records. A compilation by the National Employment Law Project shows that these cities/counties include Chicago, Ill.; San Francisco, Calif.; Boston, Mass.; and the County of Travis (Austin area, Texas).

In the case of Boston, the ordinance was later expanded from government jobs (with exceptions such as law enforcement), to more than 3,000 private vendors that do business with the city.

Here in Michigan, the city of Battle Creek adopted an ordinance in June 2008 that banned the box for its own hiring procedures. Battle Creek’s ordinance also requires a similar hiring practice of vendors who have contracts with the city.

And just this month, in January 2010, the city of Kalamazoo announced that it would no longer ask about prior criminal history on its applications for employment.

Locally, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has taken up the cause against apparent automatic exclusion of applicants for jobs at the Wal-Mart in Saline [December 2009 ACLU letter to Wal-Mart].

A Reasonable Hiring Process

Elimination of the criminal conviction box on job applications would not mean that employers would be forced to hire criminals. Rather, it gives people with criminal records the opportunity to explain their situation in an interview setting, while employers would still have the power to decide against hiring someone based on his/her qualifications.

The only difference between most prevailing practice and a more reasonable approach is that criminal background checks would be conducted after the applicant is determined to be otherwise qualified for the position, and after a pending offer of employment has been made.

If a background check is conducted and an applicant is found to have a criminal offense that is likely to interfere with that applicant’s abilities to carry out the responsibilities of the position, the employer would be entitled to rescind the employment offer.

The employer would then be required to inform the applicant of the denial of employment, provide him/her with a copy of the background report, and indicate to the applicant the specific parts of the report that concern the employer. This will give the job seeker the opportunity to present information rebutting the accuracy and/or relevance of the report, such as the changes he/she has made since the criminal conviction.

There are certain jobs that individuals with specific criminal convictions will not be able to hold. For example, some sexual offense convictions may prevent a person from working with vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, or the disabled. Thus, a list of jobs that – for safety reasons – require background checks prior to hiring should be excluded from the policy.

Outside of jobs on this list, however, it would be unacceptable for any business to deny employment “just because” an applicant has a felony record. If there is no reason to believe that the person is likely to re-offend in a manner that would hurt the business, or endanger the public, the prior felony should not factor into an employment decision.

What the City of Ann Arbor Can Do

The city of Ann Arbor’s employment application includes a box in the form of the question [emphasis added]:

Have you ever been convicted of a Felony or a Misdemeanor within the last 7 years? If yes, please state where, when and the nature of the offense(s), and the sentence(s) imposed by the court: NOTE: Conviction of a Felony or a Misdemeanor is not an automatic bar to employment (all circumstances will be considered).

A way to make sure that prior convictions are not a bar to employment – automatic or otherwise – would be for the city of Ann Arbor to follow the lead of our neighbors in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo by eliminating the prior conviction disclosure as a part of its pre-offer job application and to require its vendors to have similar policies in place.

Jason Smith, a master’s in social work student at the University of Michigan, works as an intern with the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative.


  1. By Dave
    January 27, 2010 at 1:59 pm | permalink

    I can see both sides of the story. On one side, it’s very difficult for a felon to re-enter society. At the same time, what about the victims? What about not committing these crimes in the first place? Isn’t that the most logical answer?
    Felonies are serious crimes. I hate to be cold, but grown men that know the consequences from day one and choose crime anyway garner little sympathy from me.

  2. By Dan Ryan
    January 27, 2010 at 2:21 pm | permalink

    The writer would make a more convincing case if he stated what a felony is. He didn’t so I’ll do it.

    We’re not talking about a run of the mill criminal conviction. A felony in Michigan is not something to be taken lightly.

    A felony is a serious crime against a person — such as aggravated assault and battery (in other words, not just a simple fight after too many beers on a Friday night), or crimes against property involving significant value.

    What’s more, to actually be CONVICTED of a crime, you generally need to have committed prior crimes. Why? Because for many first timers, judges/magistrates/prosecutors allow you to have your case continued without a finding, meaning you will be given a sentence as if you were found guilty, but you wouldn’t have been convicted. Hence the case is continued without a finding. So again, you wouldn’t have to check that box.

    If I were an employer in Michigan, where many thousands of good people who paid into the tax system for years are now out of work, I would want to know if an applicant has a criminal history.

  3. By Ashley
    January 27, 2010 at 3:00 pm | permalink

    I absolutely think that Washtenaw County should “Ban the Box.” A large majority of felony convictions here are for drug related activities. Everyone makes mistakes in their lives and if society doesn’t accept them back to improve their lives, the same mistakes will keep coming. Those who are conducting interviews and hiring selections should be good judges of character and base their decision on the character that they see in that interview rather than character that may have been flawed in the past.

  4. January 27, 2010 at 3:15 pm | permalink

    @1: They don’t want your sympathy, Dave, they want a job. Why would you begrudge them that? What should they do if they can’t get one?

    @2: “If I were an employer in Michigan, where many thousands of good people who paid into the tax system for years are now out of work, I would want to know if an applicant has a criminal history.”

    From the first part of your comment, Dan, I got the impression that you were going to make an argument why convicted felons should still be considered dangerous and a risk to employ. But your conclusion (above) seems to be about punishing them further. I think that you may have actually bolstered Jason’s argument that felons don’t get “fair” (I would say ‘unprejudiced’) consideration.

    Thanks for your column, Jason, and for your work with the MPRI.

  5. January 27, 2010 at 3:58 pm | permalink

    I have hired felons in the past. But I did so with full knowledge of the nature and timing of the transgression. I have other employees to protect. As a responsible employer I do my utmost to provide a safe, pleasant and productive environment. Knowing who is working next to who is part of that responsibility.

    I believe people should be given second chances. But that does not apply to every job and in every situation. The hurdle is higher for the felon. It should be. If you want to help reintegrate convicted felons, stop worrying about check marks. Instead, put some skin in the game. Start a business and hire them. Show them how to start a business. Equip them to handle the issue in an interview. Hiding a factual event(s) by making it more difficult to discover is not “fair” to the employer or to the other people with whom they must work.

  6. By Dan Ryan
    January 27, 2010 at 4:58 pm | permalink

    @Steve, re. punishing felons further. No. That’s not my intention. And I’m not saying employers can discriminate against them. But that information is vital. Would you hire somebody to supervise a cash register who had embezzled money? Would you hire a person who had committed a felony against a child to be involved with daycare? Probably not. Or at least that information should be disclosed, so the employer and prospective employee both can manage the disclosure.

    @Ashley. This check box would not apply to many people convicted of drug possession. In fact, in Michigan, possession of any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor, not a felony.

  7. By Dave
    January 28, 2010 at 6:37 am | permalink

    1. Felony drug convictions should not be taken lightly. Most often, a person convicted of a felonly drug crime was profiting from the sale of drugs. Do you really want to expose you or your employees to someone who has participated in an activity where extreme violence is the norm, not the exception?

    2. Steve, I’m not punishing felons. I’m protecting myself and my staff from them. That’s my job. In an age of workplace violence, it’s pretty easy to anyone understand.

    The box should stay. Sorry criminals…should’ve thought about that before you stuck up the 7-11 or sold coke “to put yourself through college” or any other rubbish reason.

  8. By lorie
    January 28, 2010 at 7:44 am | permalink

    Every employer has some responsibility to provide a workplace that is safe and in some cases, drug free. If we care to believe it or not, past behavior is an indication of future behavior (just doesn’t guarantee results).

    To that end, many employers require a credit and background check along with a drug test as part of the ‘on-boarding’ process. “The Box” as you put it is a voluntary disclosure confirmed by those checks and allows for an explanation where those checks do not. Banning “The Box” does nothing except remove the spot where you get to explain.

    This is one of the consequences of adult, human, voluntary behavior. Further, there are so many people looking for jobs who have past behavior that indicates less risk…Drugs or not, mistake or not, wrong place at the wrong time or not. This is a consequence of being convicted of a serious crime as an adult in a very competitive job applicant pool.

  9. By Lana
    January 28, 2010 at 8:34 am | permalink

    So, if I am reading this correctly, the reason felons continue in their lives of crime is because people won’t hire them, society is cruel to them? This is OUR fault, not theirs, and criminals would be born again if only, IF ONLY, that felony box wasn’t on an application and it was against the law to know what crime they’ve committed?

    As an employer who has hired felons and been burned each and every single time, I cannot agree. Felons in jail avoid each other, get in fights, don’t trust each other….but the outside world should just turn a blind eye and give total trust that the felon won’t steal from them, won’t destroy property, won’t stalk/rape/molest other employees, won’t use drugs or alcohol on the job, won’t show up to work bombed and the list goes on….

    The reason they can’t get hired is because they did something that makes them unfavorable in the eyes of society. Society was victimized, but society should keep forgiving and taking more? Come on now.

  10. By Megan
    January 28, 2010 at 11:17 am | permalink

    From what it seems, people missed the point of this article. The context needs to be set for those who like to argue in circles. Forget what the person did in the past–even if it may make you disgusted or angry. The fact is that they are no longer in prison, they are back in the real world. This argument is about looking forward, not backward.

    1. The argument is not about the character of a convicted felon…or about why they went to prison. The justice system is set up so that prisoners are denied their basic rights for the time they are incarcerated. Once they return to society their debt is considered payed (whether you agree or not, that is the law).

    2. “Felons,” like all people need jobs to support themselves. If we deny them jobs and they turn to selling drugs or stealing we cannot blame them as we would someone who could be gainfully employed, but chooses not to. They are being kept out of the system intentionally. What would you do if nobody would give you a minimum wage job and you had zero income to support yourself or your family? The age-old “try harder! Work for your money!” doesn’t work here. Neither does “You shouldn’t have committed a crime in the first place.”

    3. The hiring process posed by the resolution wouldn’t keep felony status “secret” but would move disclosure from a first step to a last step. AND if the felony was determined to interfere with the ability to perform a job–no hiring decision has to be made.

    4. Some additional facts to consider: Violent offenders have the smallest recidivism rate of all convictions, meaning they rarely commit new crimes that involve violence. Having worked in the restaurant industry (where many “felons” try to become employed doing entry level jobs), I will disclose that it is FLOODED with drugs. These are not drugs coming from the guy who just got out of prison. These drugs are coming from the suburban youth who are safe doing things for recreation because nobody would suspect it. Lastly, substance abuse is a factor in crime more often than not. Substance abuse is considered a disease by the AMA and many people go to prison because of drug related or drug seeking behaviors. Often crimes are committed under the influence of drugs when decision making is compromised.

    We all break the law at some level of the spectrum. Some of us are caught and punished. Some of us will return to society and turn our lives around, educate ourselves, give back. Others will return to substance abuse and a life of poor decisions. My final point is that according to the statistics on recidivism and unlawful behavior, a person with a prior felony is no more likely to commit a crime at the workplace that any employee hired off the street. Some will. Many won’t.

    The reason the felony box needs to be banned is because it puts people in a box, assuming all “felons” are the same and don’t deserve any benefit of the doubt.

  11. By Lana
    January 28, 2010 at 12:04 pm | permalink

    Well I guess in order to feel good we need to let ‘former’ theives be tellers at the bank, ‘former’ pedophiles to work in day care centers, ‘former’ drug dealers work in pharmacies and ‘former’ peeping toms set up security cameras in locker rooms.

    Be careful what you ask for. And until you’ve walked a mile in the shoes of a business that has been subjected to the whims of ‘former’ felons, don’t you dare presume to speak as if you know reality.

  12. By Dave
    January 28, 2010 at 1:21 pm | permalink

    I agree with Lana, and I didn’t miss the point at all. This is not about punishing them. This is about the obligation of employers to protect themselves, their staff, and their company’s property.

    Also, Your statistical source is dubious at best. There is an extremely high rate of recidivism for felons across the board. That’s the whole point……

  13. By Rod Johnson
    January 28, 2010 at 2:47 pm | permalink

    Yeah, I absolutely saw this article as a call to put more convicted pedophiles to work in day care centers, well spotted, Lana.

    No, wait, that would be a stupid inference to draw. Try rereading Megan’s point 2 as a factual point and not as some kind of claim about morality.

  14. By Dan Ryan
    January 28, 2010 at 3:27 pm | permalink

    No one wants to deny felons a job. That’s discrimination. What I support is having the box, because I believe disclosure is a good thing. Then the issue can be managed. That’s why we require disclosure in many arenas of life.

    And, I’m sorry, there’s no excuse for selling drugs. I can’t find a job just won’t cut it. There ARE jobs out there, but perhaps not ones people would like.

  15. January 28, 2010 at 3:43 pm | permalink

    @Megan: I got an idea. Why don’t you hire a felon or two–maybe as a house cleaner or baby sitter? Can you walk the talk or just talk.

  16. By Jeff
    January 28, 2010 at 5:17 pm | permalink

    @Megan: Thank you for your detailed, mature response.

    @Dave (and Dan and Lana): I believe you do indeed miss the point. This *is* about indefinite punishment, even if that is not your intent. What matters, however, is not your intent, no matter how good it may be, but the actual result of the “box”, which is to deny even a chance of gainful employment to people we who have paid their debt to society in the eyes of the law.

  17. By Ali
    January 28, 2010 at 7:00 pm | permalink

    At risk of plagiarizing arguments already made in favor of “eliminating the box”, I think it is important that people who have committed felonies in the past and deemed to have paid for these transgressions by our highly thought out justice system, be able to have the second chance they are promised and indeed deserve.
    As the article has made clear, a ex-sexual assaulter will not be your child’s teacher, an ex-embezzler will not be your banker, and the ex drug dealer will not be your pharmacist. But perhaps the ex-embezzeler could at least be considered as a school teacher, the ex drug dealer as a banker and even the ex sexual assaulter as a pharmacist, provided they all possess the skills to hold these positions. The crimes they have committed should not have anything to do with the work in their profession, and as stated in the article, the employers can always run a background check after which they may decide not to hire the candidate with an explanation as to what aspects of the crime concern the employer.
    Of course it is common for people to feel pessimistic regarding the full reintegration of ex-felons into a society whose laws they transgressed in the past, perhaps it is our unforgiving nature. But there must be some space to consider the many people who actually have changed and want to make a better life for themselves and their families. Things are not as easy and black and white sometimes. It is pretty extremist to believe in the saying “Once a criminal, always a criminal” or “A criminal is a criminal is a criminal” without even considering what relation the crime has with the position they are applying to. (As Megan expressed more eloquently in the conclusion of her post.)
    If it is not a permanent punishment that some of the previous comments are suggesting, then how do they propose the ex-felons make a living and leave their past lives behind to embrace the model life we all want them to live if they are denied to opportunity to start a career and provide for themselves and their family legally?

    And lastly, if we truly believe that criminals are not readjusted and have not redeemed for their crimes then perhaps there needs to be a change in the justice system in which the citizens are more confident. Perhaps we need to consider a shift away for a system that seeks to punish to one that is concerned with rehabilitating instead. Research has shown that there are environments that seem to breed more “criminals” than others. Perhaps we could invest in alleviating the circumstances of the environments.

  18. By Joe
    January 29, 2010 at 8:45 am | permalink

    What most responders seem to be missing is that the author isn’t arguing against background checks and screening: he’s arguing that they should be conducted later in the process, and that convicted felons should be allowed to explain what happened rather than being automatically eliminated at the first stage.

    Seems fair to me.

  19. By Jeff
    January 29, 2010 at 9:07 am | permalink

    Thank you Ali, very well put.

  20. By Dan Ryan
    January 29, 2010 at 12:04 pm | permalink

    @Joe, having the box allows both parties to talk about the issue. Not having that box means the employer won’t have as much information.

    Again, would you like politicians not to disclose the source of their funding. Would you like people on non profit boards not to disclose their conflicts of interest. I’m always on the side of disclosure, and this question is no different.

  21. January 29, 2010 at 12:06 pm | permalink

    I don’t understand the need here to emphasize the hiring of felons. If you owned a company, and were going to hire a person to work with a cash register, take information from customers, or work with the public… wouldn’t you want to know if they were a convicted felon? And that certainly may be enough to get rid of them before wasting any time in the hiring process. Yes, the past is the past. But the past also can present a pattern.

    If they went to prison, are they listing that as an address?

    I’ve worked with convicted felons, and they are very open about the history. Which is maybe the reason why they were hired. Being honest and forthcoming certainly goes a long way. Trying to hide something until later is suspicious.

    Also, it’s hard for anyone to get a job now. I think “the box” poses no problems whatsoever. Removing it seems ridiculous.

  22. By Lemmy
    January 29, 2010 at 5:56 pm | permalink

    I have followed the story of the Washtenaw Jail Diary and have some amount of sympathy for the guy. Still, “banning the box” is hardly the solution to getting this guy a job. From what I understand, having read his entries, the guy made a one-time mistake and paid for it with jail time. Even if he never commits another felony, why should we change the entire system just to suit the minority of offenders who are in his position (ostensible self-reform/rehabilitation)?

    From my experience dealing with those who have been convicted of a felony, this guy could get a job – he’ll just have to adjust the kind of job he is willing to accept. Here is a top 10 list for ex-felons that I pulled from another site:

    1.Online GPT Services

    This is the best job for a felon, because it requires no screenings whether it be background checks, drug tests, etc. Everyone is accepted, and you work on your own time and you can work as much or as little as you want. Online ‘GPT’ or “Get-Paid-To” services offer a great way to make a few hundred dollars a month without spending a lot of time working. There are many GPT services available, some better then others. My experience with GPT services has been a great one, and I recommend this as the best job in my list of Top 10 Jobs for Felons.

    2.Privately owned small businesses

    Some chain businesses have rules against accepting felons. Small business owners are more likely to accept you. They will take more of a ‘risk’ in hiring employees, and you can be more personal with the business owner.

    3. Independent Contractor

    Many people will still use your services as long as you get the job done. If you work hard, it doesn’t matter that you have a felony on your record.

    4.Family business

    See if you can work in a family or friend’s business. They will be happy to hire you if you are willing to work hard. They will probably be glad to help you get back on your feet.

    5.Temp Agency

    Temp agencies can occasionally find good work for you. Many times it will be day labor, so be in good physical shape.

    6.Telephone Customer Service

    Many companies are willing to hire felons for over the phone customer service, because you aren’t dealing with the people in person.

    7.Start your own business

    You can start your own business. One idea is to go to school to be a locksmith, and start your own company. Also consider getting a barber license.

    8.Truck driver

    Many trucking companies are willing to hire felons. Most likely you will need to obtain a trucking license.

    9.Join the army

    The army accepts people with criminal backgrounds, depending on the crime. Contact a recruiter to see if you qualify to join.

    10.UPS Delivery Driver

    UPS has been known to hire felons. They have moderate salaries and is a stable job to have.