For the past few years, there's been a grassroots movement in the U.S. involving an easy-to-remember three-word slogan: “Ban the Box.”
The box is the one that anyone who's filled out a job application might recall: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Supporters of the Ban the Box want to see it removed from applications for government jobs. They argue that the box deters people with criminal records from applying for jobs, and it promotes discrimination. Check a person's criminal record later, they urge, after an applicant goes through an initial interview. As a 2005 Princeton University study found, a person with a record is more likely to have his application rejected even if he's otherwise qualified for the job.
Why's this an issue? Studies of prisoner recidivism point to unemployment as one of the main reasons a formerly incarcerated person reverts to crime. It's estimated that 80 percent of people in California who've done prison time are unemployed. And, according to a report by California's Little Hoover Commission, an independent government watchdog group, the recidivism rate is equally high—roughly 70 percent of people who are released from prison or jail in California will return within 18 months.
So far, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago and Minneapolis, among a few other cities, have removed the box from government job applications (in Boston, the policy extends to city contractors), except in cases where a person's criminal history has a direct bearing on a job—like working with money or children. And city councils in L.A. and San Bernardino have asked their HR departments to study their hiring practices to make sure folks with records aren't being discriminated against.
And what about San Diego? In November, the local chapter of civil-rights organization All of Us or None (the group behind Ban the Box) asked the city's Human Relations Commission to support a resolution asking the city to remove the box from its job applications. In February, the HRC unanimously supported the resolution and passed it on to the mayor and City Council. CityBeat contacted Mayor Jerry Sanders' office to see if removing the box is something he'd support.
The response was no. “It's information that we need in order to make an informed decision,” said Sanders' spokesperson, Fred Sainz.
Ah, good ol' law-and-order San Diego. So different from our neighbors to the north.
Well, not exactly. Ends up there's no “box” on city applications, said Hadi Dehghani, the city's personnel director. Rather, he explained, once a person's been offered a job, they're asked to fill out a form listing all criminal convictions.
“A conviction record is not necessarily a basis for disqualification,” Dehghani explained. “We evaluate conviction records on a case-by-case basis.”
Dennis Malone, who heads the local chapter of All of Us or None, was surprised—he has city job applications that include that question, though they're a few years old. A lot of cities revise their applications when the process moves online, Malone noted. “That's good,” he said. “Kind of moves us to the next stage.”
Malone did eight years in prison in the '80s for drug sales and upon release earned a college degree. He later got a job counseling other ex-offenders. Malone wants to see a more public dialog about job opportunities for former convicts.
According to a recent study by the San Diego Association of Governments, prisoner re-entry ranks No. 3 out of five local public-safety concerns, ahead of border enforcement. Drugs and gangs ranked 1 and 2, respectively. Nos. 1, 2 and 3 are all connected, said Alan Mobley, an SDSU professor who specializes in criminal-justice issues.
“If you have large numbers of people, especially males in their prime work years, sitting around without work, then that leads to trouble,” Mobley said. “And if in that mix... are larger and larger numbers of formerly incarcerated persons, then that does not bode well for public safety. So, if we're to manage ourselves as a society in an equitable way and in a sound and safe way, then we need to pay special attention to exclusionary practices that can lead potentially to social unrest.”