Ban the Box town hall discusses removing criminal history application questions

Post-secondary education should be accessible to those who have been incarcerated, argues Ban the Box.

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Gillian Manning, Copy Desk Chief

Anyone who has filled out a university application may recall having to answer a question about their criminal history. Failure to answer these types of questions can delay application processing and a prospective student’s answer can result in a disciplinary hold or rejection. 

Ban the Box at FAU is an organization working to remove questions regarding criminal history from FAU’s and other university and college admission applications. 

They hosted their first event on April 6 which featured four speakers who work within universities and colleges, research, and different advocacy groups. After the speakers introduced themselves and their ideas, attendees were invited to ask questions.

The town hall began with a reading of a statement from an anonymous, former FAU student. This student’s account described how they had a traumatic childhood and fell into drug addiction as a result. Their addiction resulted in a felony for possession and their partner was in a similar position. 

After being released and in recovery, their partner applied to FAU and was rejected because of their record. The former student decided to lie on their application and managed to get their degree but has turned down job offers because of background check requirements.

According to this student’s testimony, barriers to jobs and education for the formerly incarcerated only perpetuate the cycles of addiction, poverty, and incarceration. 

“I am not my past,” stated the anonymous alum. 

One speaker, Keri Watson, Ph.D., director of UCF’s Florida Prison Project, began by highlighting the importance of higher education in obtaining a job.

“Education is a passport to get from one place to another,” said Richard Lewis, manager of student support services for the supervision and management program at Broward College. He encouraged people to “stop coming from a place of fear.”

Speakers discussed how, if the point of the criminal justice system is to rehabilitate, making education and jobs inaccessible to those with a criminal record is counterintuitive.

Watson also mentioned during the panel that schools that don’t include criminal history questions on their admissions applications have a lower rate of on-campus crime. 

Angel Sanchez, author of “In Spite of Prison,” a member of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and a formerly incarcerated person, discussed how discriminatory questions can harm those who are trying to reenter society. 

The task of repeatedly trying to explain one’s past, he explained, is extremely discouraging. 

While incarcerated, Sanchez began reading about law and in anticipation of his release, sent a letter to Valencia College in Orlando inquiring about their course catalog. Knowing that his letter would be postmarked from the prison, he didn’t expect to hear back. He was surprised when the school not only sent him a course catalog but also a note encouraging him to apply and “come join” them.

Sanchez said that were he to have been faced with discriminatory questions about his past, it “would have been an excuse to go back to the hood.”

The speakers discussed what colleges can do to make education more accessible.

Lewis stated that the number one goal should be removing questions about criminal history from admissions applications. The focus should also be on training school advisors to not only engage with formerly incarcerated students but to also be more empathetic towards them, Lewis said. 

Sanchez highlighted four points for progress; eliminating application barriers, increase post-secondary education in and out of prison, expand on-campus support systems, and establish transitional, reentry programs for those being released into the community.

All it would take is one school to start a domino effect, argued Annie Phoenix, the co-founder of Operation Restoration. “Colleges are influenced by their peers,” she said.

Phoenix also argued that people are not entitled to know about someone’s criminal history. They’ve already paid their debt to society. “It’s not something that you have the right to know,” she said.

 

Gillian Manning is the Copy Desk Chief for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, tweet her @gillianmanning_ or email [email protected]