Derek Scarlino

President Urges ‘Ban the Box’ at Federal Level, Will Utica’s Own Movement Get a Boost?

by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage

President Obama, on Monday, announced his support to “ban the box” for federal employees.

So what does that mean?

It means that applications for federal jobs will no longer have a check box or question where applicants state whether or not they have past criminal convictions.

That said, any rush to give credit to the president for such a progressive deed might be premature. There’s been a grassroots campaign behind this effort in communities across the United States for several years attempting to do just that and it has been met with success in several major cities and even seven entire states.

Once again, activists lead the way. Politicians ride the coattails. Nonetheless, it’s still a big boost for this issue in the mainstream American mindset.

Here at home, we’ve seen the emergence of a Utica-centric movement to ban the box. Currently, Utica is the largest city in New York to not have passed a ban the box ordinance.

Local activist groups from Incarcerated Flavors and CNY Citizens in Action to members of the Utica chapters of the Black Rose Anarchist Federation and IWW  (with help from activists in Rochester) have been involved in either voicing their support or helping directly to build a local coalition. And there are plenty of reasons why.

While the ban does not have any impact on whether or not an employer will conduct an actual criminal background check, it effectively removes a barrier to employment for some of the most at-risk members of society: The formerly-incarcerated.

Employers who catch sight of a box checked Yes develop an instant bias against formerly incarcerated job applicants making it harder for them to gain access to a critical resource in avoiding recidivism after release. It doesn’t end with employers, either. People with past criminal convictions also face discrimination in housing, the other side of the anti-recidivism coin.

Upon release, a stable housing situation decreases one’s chance of ending up back in prison. As does getting a job. Since 1 in 4 adults in the US has a criminal history, it is apparent that this is a bigger issue than it might seem.

A study of over 40,000 individuals returning to New York City from state correctional facilities reveals the correlation between shelter use and risk of recidivism. Individuals who entered a homeless shelter within the first two years after release faced a higher risk of re-incarceration. Individuals who reported living in a shelter before incarceration faced a higher risk of both shelter use after release and re-incarceration. Many formerly incarcerated individuals end up in unstable housing arrangements after release. As the research above indicates, stable housing is a vital component of effective re-entry.

As for incarceration rates, the inherent problems of the US criminal justice system compound many times over creating a discouraging reality. As recently as the mid-1970s, with crime rates falling, criminologists were predicting that the prison system would fade away. Prison did not deter crime significantly – meaningful economic and social opportunities did and do. In 30 years, the US prison population rose from ~300,000 to over 2 million. The Land of the Free has a larger incarcerated population than highly repressive regimes like Russia, China and Iran. The US incarcerates a larger portion of its Black population than did South Africa under apartheid. In Washington DC, three out of four young Black men can expect to serve time in prison (the rates are similar across the US).

Continued, the US has over 2.4 million behind bars,  an increase of over 500% in the past thirty years. We have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. People of color represent 60% of people in cages and one in eight  Black men in their twenties are locked up on any given day. 75% of people in state prison for drug conviction are people of color, although Blacks and whites use drugs at roughly the same rate. In New York State, 94% of those imprisoned for a drug offense are people of color and the  number of drug offenders in state prison has increased thirteen-fold since 1980. Today, approximately 5.3 million Americans are denied their right to vote and 13% of Black men are disenfranchised. Over the past two decades, state spending on prisons grew six times the spending of higher education. From 1997 to 2007  the number of women in prison has increased by 832%. Nearly $70 billion is spent annually on prisons, probation, parole and detention.

For ban the box initiatives to work, they need a great deal of coordination. Coalitions of activists, community action groups and other advocates need to form and build support. Ordinances taking into account the given area’s specific characteristics need to be written along with isolating sympathetic ears in local government, possibly resulting in sponsorship. This takes time, and while the first steps have been taken in Utica with informative events at both Mohawk Valley Community College (hosted by Incarcerated Flavors) and the Mohawk Valley Freedom School (presented by the Black Rose Anarchist Federation and local advocates), the current election season has delayed the political development.

Like most of the other ordinances passed, any initial ban the box strategy in Utica will likely target the public sector first with impassioned urgency for private employers to adopt the practice. Given the area’s limited revitalization, seeing the ban expanded to up-and-coming businesses would undoubtedly show a deeper committment to improving the quality of life for Uticans by reaching out to members of the community too often dismissed. Economic activity needs positive economic actors — not barriers to participation.

The information in the above article came primarily from the Ban the Box presentation at the Mohawk Valley Freedom School given by Derek Scarlino, Nay Briggs and Brendan Maslauskas-Dunn in September. For more information on the information used, please view the report by the National Employment Law Project.


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