Yale’s insularity often obscures the world around us. We struggle to find reliable incentives to look beyond the depths of Bass Library, the rigid columns of a Google Calendar or — as of most recently — Silliman’s new plastic domes. The demands of our environment reinforce a reality built along Yale’s boundaries and relegate everything outside to the ether.
Unsurprisingly, our bubble discriminates against a vilified — when not outright erased — subset of the population: the justice-impacted. Generally referred to as “previously incarcerated” or “formerly convicted,” this demographic contains its own share of aspiring students and professionals. They clash with the circumstances of their own reality. Universities like Yale represent this identity with just one, broad question in their application — “the box.”
The box asks college applicants about their criminal history, forcing justice-impacted individuals to define themselves by their past entanglement with the criminal justice system. More often than not, this guarantees rejection. At Yale, we claim to be the bastion of “improving the world today and for future generations.” And yet, we fail. If we want to take steps to fulfill that promise, that begins with banning the box.
Over 70 million Americans — one-fifth of the population — have a criminal record. It only takes one incident for our laws and society to stick this label on them for the rest of their lives. From enrolling in university to finding a job, citizens who have paid their debt to society and are willing to start afresh encounter a myriad of obstacles.
According to the Brookings Institution, colleges reject applicants with convictions at a rate of 12 to 13 percentage points higher than those without. In fact, anticipating rejection on these grounds, up to 22 percent of high school graduates with minor drug convictions don’t even complete their applications. Yale does not publicize their statistics.
In contrast, justice-impacted individuals who receive an education are significantly less likely to commit another crime — for those pursuing a bachelor’s degree, recidivism plummets to 5.6 percent. For those pursuing a master’s degree, it’s zero. Furthermore, those who obtain a job have been shown to work as well as or better than counterparts without criminal records. And after a period of about four years, both groups exhibit the same likelihood to commit a crime.
But we as a society continue to excommunicate felons. We claim to believe in second chances, and yet the box perpetuates an inescapable cycle of barring justice-impacted people from redemption. When Yale puts the box on its application, it denies multitudes of potential leaders and innovators from creating the change that such a college education would allow.
As a result of a criminal justice system designed to discriminate, those who are disproportionately subjugated to this exclusion are overwhelmingly students of color. Our policies have resulted in the arrests of almost one-third of Americans by age 23. The rates for Hispanic and black men, however, rise to 44 and 49 percent, respectively. We subscribe to Yale’s diversity statement of “maintaining an inclusive community of scholars that celebrates people with a variety of backgrounds and beliefs.” It’s why we support banning the box. Justice-impacted individuals would bring an array of diverse experiences, having been closest to our malicious criminal justice system. They would be the lens to such problems plaguing our society.
For this to be achieved, though, Yale must implement a truly holistic admissions process. We already reject discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, color, religion, age, disability, veteran status, ethnic origin, sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s time to expand these protections to those who are justice-impacted.
By no means are we advocating for a complete disregard of one’s history in the admissions process. On the contrary, we believe that banning the box would lead to a better assessment of one’s fitness to be a Yale student. The use of the box as a means of determining one’s moral character and potential on campus is woefully inaccurate.
Instead, banning the box can and should be complemented by some nuanced, specific questions about one’s history for the purposes of ensuring campus safety. The construction of questions aimed towards this goal will enable individuals with a criminal history to have their second chance in society. Louisiana’s 2017 “Ban the Box” law, for example, removed the criminal history question from public college applications while still asking specific questions about stalking and sexual violence. This process ensures safety on campus while avoiding unnecessary obstacles for those who don’t pose a threat to others. This is a fairer and more effective system that, in the long run, will make this inescapable cycle slightly less confining.
When we accepted Yale’s offer of admission, most of us knew of the industrious-academic world we were getting into. Ultimately, our time at Yale is short, and few of us would give it up. But we must ask ourselves: need we preclude our privileges from the justice-impacted? These are tough questions for a society that has long stigmatized the justice-impacted. It doesn’t have to remain this way.
We all know people who have been tangled up in situations they regret immensely. Perhaps they’re family members, close or distant. Maybe they’re friends, old or new. That person could even be you. But what rings true among all of us is a refusal to be shackled to a life of never-ending discrimination.
Yale has the ability to right such a wrong. That means banning the box.
TALAT AMAN is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. He is a member of the Justice Impact Movement at Yale. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .