Dec. 26, 2014

Virginia: Ban the box

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January 20, 2014

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Anyone who has ever filled out a job application has encountered a box requesting disclosure of any criminal convictions, which can prejudice employers against applicants with criminal records. “Ban the Box,” a law proposed by two Virginia state legislators, would prevent employers from directly asking this question on job applications, but it would allow them to conduct criminal background checks. The bill’s proponents argue this would allow applicants with criminal records an equal shot at a job interview and a better first impression. Given college students’ propensity for poor decision-making and the often-arbitrary nature of drug and alcohol enforcement, this is an initiative the College of William and Mary should support.

We all make mistakes in college. Some of these mistakes may include breaking the law. In fact, one study published by The New York Times found that, by age 23, almost one third of Americans have an arrest on their record. While violating laws is not advisable, getting caught can be as much a result of bad luck as poor judgment. “Ban the Box” would at least spare some unlucky students the humiliation of applying for a job and confessing to a crime in the same instant, letting them obtain interviews on their own merits before employers find out their criminal history. The challenges facing students in the current job market are hard enough without that additional complication.

“Ban the Box” would also benefit employers who might write off otherwise qualified applicants based on their immediate knowledge of an applicant’s criminal record. It would be better for employers to learn of an applicant’s criminal history after they have seen their resume. Having the chance to interact face to face with potential employers, job candidates could explain their criminal histories to employers on their own terms during interviews, or they could wait for employers to run a background check. Either way, employers will be able to evaluate applicants’ qualifications more objectively and hire good employees.

This bill should appeal to the Sherman and Gloria H. Cohen Career Center, which helps students build resumes but is unable to erase criminal records. “Ban the Box” could assist the Career Center in its work for convicted alumni. If alumni and current students with criminal records knew they would not be immediately asked about any criminal convictions, they would feel more encouraged to apply for jobs. If the legislation passes, the Career Center should make a specific effort to reach out to convicted students and alumni, to let them know that there are services available to help them.

Students who feel passionately about this proposed bill should make it known to our district’s newly elected delegate, Monty Mason. A good percentage of Mason’s constituency is students at the College; it’s in both his and their best interests to work toward passing this legislation.

Offenders who cannot get jobs because of their criminal convictions will likely find themselves back in jail. This imposes a tremendous cost on society, both in taxpayer dollars to convict and imprison repeat offenders and in a shrunken labor force and economy. It is an ethical and economic imperative that we work toward higher employment for these men and women. One day you could be one of them.

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