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Taking “Ban the Box” to the Next Level

President Obama speaking.
President Obama participates in a conversation on criminal justice reform at the White House on October 22, 2015. © Aude Guerrucci/Newscom

President Obama has taken an important first step towards “banning the box,” announcing that he will prohibit federal agencies from asking job seekers about their conviction histories on employment applications. I am extremely grateful. When All of Us or None, the group I cofounded in 2004, first coined the term and initiated the Ban the Box campaign, we thought the government needed to demonstrate its willingness to end its own ugly discriminatory practices before making demands on the private sector.

A lot of people were excited by the president’s announcement. It took me a minute to understand, however, that many of them were embracing “ban the box” merely as a slogan, without a deeper understanding of how it actually works and the community organizing supporting it. Over the course of 10 years of work on this issue, we have identified three core components for employers:

  1. Refrain from inquiring about an individual’s conviction history until after extending a conditional offer of employment. This increases the likelihood of assessing applicants on the basis of their qualifications rather than their pasts.
  2. Determine how to weigh the information from an applicant’s conviction history once it’s been provided. Is the conviction reasonably related to the job? How long has it been since the applicant’s last conviction? Is there mitigating information such as drug treatment, training, therapy, and/or character references that merits consideration?
  3. Provide copies of the conviction history document to the applicant, along with information on how to appeal a rejection.

The president’s action, announced earlier this month, helps enormously by getting federal agencies on board. However, this is only one step in the march to ban the box before the end of Obama’s term. We urge the president to go further and issue an executive order extending the ban to federal contractors—who account for 25 percent of the labor pool.

We believe that the government should determine the current hiring policies of companies before granting them a federal contract to ensure that they do not engage in structural discrimination. We also believe there should be a mechanism for holding contractors accountable if they do not comply. 

Fighting for systemic change requires including the private companies federal agencies do business with—companies that benefit from our tax dollars. Imagine for a moment what would have happened if the civil rights movement had helped desegregate the military, but left segregation in other institutions throughout the South intact.

Our march forward continues. But in one key respect, the battle is already won. The Ban the Box movement empowered formerly incarcerated people to organize, speak in our own voices, and make demands on the system. We are the experts when it comes to our aspirations and needs. I am extremely excited by the large number of formerly incarcerated people who are working for full restoration of our civil and human rights.

Obama’s presidency represents our best chance to see these changes through. If we can’t get a black president who was a former community organizer to issue an executive order to ban the box, why should we believe that democracy works for formerly incarcerated people? This is something we need—and we need to get right—to help safeguard the right of all of us to find work, afford housing, and put food on the table.

All of Us or None is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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