“So pervasive is the racial inequality in the criminal justice system, it is impossible for the inquiry and usage of criminal justice information in college applications to be a race-neutral practice” states a joint report from the Justice Impact Movement, also known as JIM, and Yale College Council. People with a history of system involvement are three times less likely to finish a college application after starting than those without, all because of a single question asking about their past. Most of these prospective students belong to nonwhite minorities, feeding the issue of skewed demographics in higher education. JIM, a subgroup within the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project, encourages institutions of higher education to “ban the box” and promote a fairer system in the U.S. We want to break down the barriers to higher education for justice-impacted individuals. Such change starts with a new bill in the Connecticut General Assembly.
H.B. 6228, a Senate bill referred to the Committee on Higher Education and Employment Advancement, prohibits higher education institutions from using criminal justice history in admissions and financial aid decisions and establishes a state-wide Prison Education Program Office to help run programs within Connecticut prisons. The Program Office would help incarcerated scholars with re-entry and financial aid while also developing a process by which such students may field complaints about any of the university-led education programs. Yale students are likely familiar with YUPP, which fights inequities in the criminal justice system through education programs and organized activism; this new bill works towards similar goals, pushing to end discrimination in higher education and provide opportunities to those who are justice-impacted.
The criminal “justice” system in America disproportionately affects minority communities, and the struggles that follow incarceration — including barring from jobs and higher education — turn even the shortest sentences into lifetime ones. In the United States, the incarceration rates for African Americans are more than five times higher than that of white Americans, and almost 75 percent of those who reenter society are unable to find a job within the following year. A Black man our age, 18 to 19 years old, is nearly 12 times more likely to be incarcerated right now than his white peer.
Knowledge is power, and an education can help those who have lost years of their lives to an unfair system build a more stable future. Higher education is among the best ways to improve quality of life for justice-impacted individuals. Those without feasible opportunity are more likely to reenter the system later on. When institutions, companies and governments exclude justice-impacted individuals from educational and monetary opportunities, they inherently reinforce racism and heighten the chances of recidivism.
The reasoning behind criminal history questions on school applications is widely unknown, although many institutions state “campus safety” as the primary concern. However, reports show that campus crimes are actually more likely to be committed by students who are not justice-impacted. Furthermore, schools that have already banned the box have seen no significant change in crime rates, and the related application questions are often far too broad to be relevant to such concerns. More than 50 schools, along with the state of Louisiana and the organization that manages the Common App, have removed criminal history questions from their applications, yet none in the Ivy League have. Universities like ours ought to be places where people can learn and grow, regardless of the path they took to get here.
JIM, founded under the National Justice Impact Bar Association, pushes to end discrimination in higher education, and after discussions with Yale’s College Council about “banning the box” in Yale admissions, we decided to push our agenda statewide. We recognize that racial equity is closely intertwined with educational opportunity, and to continue the fight for social justice in America, minority communities must be allowed to gain an education. By asking students about their criminal history, Connecticut universities both discourage and discriminate against those who might benefit most from an education. The new bill in the Connecticut General Assembly could be life-changing for thousands of justice-impacted individuals. Banning the box on college applications and establishing a Prison Education Program Office would make getting a degree much more accessible to currently and formerly incarcerated people. This is an important opportunity for universities to reckon with the effects of a racialized criminal justice system and do their part in making the American education system more equitable. We can start with H.B. 6228.
ELIZABETH CORDOVA is a sophomore in Grace Hopper College. Contact her at email@example.com.