This past week, students from the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project and Yale College Democrats campaigned to “Ban the Box,” advocating for the passage of House Bill 5237, which would eliminate the question of former incarceration on job application forms in Connecticut.
While New Haven banned the box for public employees in 2008 and Yale did so in 2011, the bill — titled “An Act Concerning Fair Chance Employment” — is currently under consideration in the State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Public Employees. Seven states have enacted similar changes to public employment laws to reduce discrimination based on an applicant’s criminal record. YUPP members said the box facilitates employment discrimination and that its removal would increase opportunities for former prisoners whose applications might be thrown out simply because they have a criminal record.
“The bill would ensure that employers don’t deny an applicant due to his or her criminal background, which would ultimately give employees a second chance to prove that they can lead productive lives,” said Yasmin Eriksson ’19, co-captain of the Criminal Justice Legislative Committee for the Yale College Democrats and Legislative Coordinator for YUPP. “The ‘Ban the Box’ bill has already been implemented successfully in New Haven, so it is time equal opportunity is enforced statewide.”
Members of YUPP held a letter-signing campaign in seven dining halls last week to raise awareness and support from the student body, Eriksson said. Volunteers collected 511 letters from students on Tuesday that they presented at a public hearing at Career High School on March 3.
Over 80 community members were present to testify on the proposed legislation at the hearing, YUPP Advocacy Coordinator Patrick Sullivan ’18 said. Speakers included individuals who had been incarcerated, local employers articulating their concerns and legal organizations from the community advocating for the bill’s passage. Before reaching Gov. Dannel Malloy’s desk, the bill must first pass through both the committee and the General Assembly in Hartford.
“Growing up in New Orleans, I have had friends who were incarcerated either for minor misdemeanors or for self-defense crimes,” Eriksson said. “Their difficulty finding employment later has led to financial instability and emotional distress.”
David Toppelberg ’18, who heads the “Ban the Box” advocacy project within YUPP, said that while reception from the student body has been largely positive, some were skeptical about safety issues.
“There were some people taken into the idea that every kind of criminal is a dangerous criminal, which we know from social science studies, research and personal experience that is obviously not true,” Toppelberg said. “It’s very important to reduce the knee-jerk reaction of ‘I don’t want an ex-prisoner working for me.’”
This misconception ignores many significant factors in the criminal-justice system, including race, socioeconomic status, education and ability to get legal representation, Toppelberg said.
The link between incarceration and employment is strong, according to Sullivan, who also mentors at the Manson Youth Institution — a high-security facility for inmates aged 21 and younger — in Cheshire. Sullivan said most of the young men he speaks to are worried about how their felony records will affect their job prospects. A 2011 study by the National Institute of Justice found that criminal records reduce the likelihood of callbacks or job offers by nearly 50 percent, Sullivan said at the hearing.
“It’s pretty much universally acknowledged that good employment is one of the most important factors in keeping people from going back to prison,” Toppelberg said. “Other states and cities that have gotten rid of the box have seen huge drops in employment discrimination, higher rates of hiring for formerly incarcerated people, and recidivism rates plummeting.”
But the bill, which also addresses issues such as the look-back period on background checks and the cash bail system, would not prevent employers from looking into potential employees’ criminal histories at a later stage in the application process, Sullivan said. He added that employers can also choose not to hire formerly incarcerated applicants or can withdraw their offers for other reasons besides a criminal record.
Connecticut is undertaking other efforts to reform its criminal justice system as well. Senate Bill 18, “An Act Concerning a Second Chance Society,” aims to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 20 by 2019 and implement an appropriate competency exam, risk-assessment training, mental health programs and rehabilitation centers around the state, Eriksson said.
Through advocacy and publicity efforts, such as the “Ban the Box” letter campaign and an upcoming “Second Chance Society” whiteboard campaign on Cross Campus this Wednesday, Eriksson said she hopes students can communicate to legislators how deeply they care about criminal-justice reform.
“There are real people and real families that are caused immeasurable suffering by a tiny little box at the bottom of a job application,” Yale Dems Legislative Co-Captain Adam Michalowski ’19 said. “Let’s get rid of that and help everyone.”