Let’s Ban the Box

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I don’t write a lot about politics anymore.  It’s not that I’ve lost my passion for politics or policy.  I have a lot more responsibilities nowadays like finishing school and running the day-to-day operations of my business that I just don’t have time to do things like watch the news and nerd out on policy ideas.  One item did come across my desk that is of paramount importance to me.  It’s a story about ‘ban the box’ laws and steps that we’re taking as a culture to make the hiring process fairer for convicted felons.

As many of you know (probably due to the fact that I spent most of my summer writing about this) I am a convicted felon.  It has changed my life for good and for bad ever since it happened.  Some of you may wonder what good came out of it all.  Hitting absolute rock bottom forced me to re-evaluate my life, my priorities, and my mission in life.  Going through the criminal justice system forced me to find my passion in life: writing.  And though I’ve tried to keep my identity as a convicted felon more or less distanced from who I am today I have learned that I can no more divorce that part of my life than I can the mindset that allows me to do what I love each and every day.

There are significant drawbacks to being in my position though.  That should go without saying.  Many people don’t realize how ridiculous these drawbacks are.  In 2009, I finished my Associate’s Degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management.  In 2011, I went back to school to finish my Bachelor’s degree.  I’ll be graduating in December.  As I look at grad schools I’ve received rather ominous and distressing news about my own career prospects.  I have been a model student since I went back to school.  My GPA over the last four years is 3.68.  I’m graduating with a double major.  I have strong letters of recommendation and an outstanding writing sample.  There’s one thing that I keep hearing from advisors as I submit my grad apps: “we’ll look at your application, but your chances of gaining admission are slim to none.”  That’s what I’ve heard from more than one school now.  The reason: I’m a convicted felon.

“Even if we were to accept you to our school we feel that the odds of you successfully gaining employment post-graduation are significantly low.  Because we want our students to excel not only in school, but in life we do not feel that you are a good candidate for graduate education,” one adviser told me.  It’s that part about excelling in life that ripped into my heart.  You’re basically saying that regardless of what I do I am a failure in life because of something stupid that I did when I was 21 years old.  That isn’t just ridiculous and stupid as well as offensive and utterly demoralizing it simply isn’t true.

Had this never happened to me I wouldn’t be in a position to even apply for graduate school because I never would have found the motivation to finish my bachelor’s.  I was told upon acceptance to my undergrad school that I would never get in to their school of education and they were right.  Because I was a convicted felon I could not even take the basic classes that are a pre-requisite for gaining admission to the school and the education program.  My lifelong dream of being a teacher was crushed because I made a bad decision nearly ten years ago.  What’s more is that I cannot attain gainful employment because of my record so I have to pretty much forget about ever writing a resume that will see the eyes of a hiring manager.

None of that is the worst of it either.  I was told that even if I were to make it through graduate school and gain my PHD there still wasn’t anyone who would hire me as a professor.  My response to all of this has been incredibly demoralizing.  I’ve responded to these sentiments with what I believe to be the single most important thing that is lost in all of this: “it is unfortunate that America is the land of opportunity until you make a mistake.  I’ve spent the last ten years of my life apologizing for what I’ve done and trying to learn from it as best I can.  There is nothing I can do to undo the damage I have undone, but you have the opportunity to show that second chances aren’t just for football players who engage in dogfighting.  The real world knowledge that I have about the world we live in and how the choices we make impact our lives is invaluable.  Not only are you denying me an opportunity to better myself you’re denying future students the benefit of having a teacher with real world experience in the art of making mistakes.”

I remember a moment that I had with my probation officer that has always stayed with me.  It was my first time meeting with him and he was entering all my information into the system.  He looked at my medical history and then looked at me as if he was very confused.

“Why are you taking all these meds?”  He asked.

“I have Depression,” I said.

“Oh no,” he said.  “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

He didn’t believe that I would stay motivated enough to avoid going back to jail.

“No offense or anything, but I’ve worked with people like you before and frankly you don’t last long,” he said.

When I finished my three year stint with community corrections I didn’t rub his face in it or anything.  He had put up with me for three years and that was torture enough (imagine how my parents feel.)  I won’t forget his parting words to me:

“I hope I never see you again,” he said.  I looked back at him giving him a moment to realize what he said.  “I mean, I suppose it’d be good job security but no one should want you to fail.”

No one should want you to fail.  This coming from a man who saw pretty much nothing but failure in his chosen vocation.  My probation officer was more reassuring than college advisers who supposedly have my best interests at heart.  I want to say that though I have been rejected from some schools I’m not giving up my pursuit of a higher education.  The only thing that’s changed is my mindset in how I’m going to approach the process.

There is some good news in all this.  This is the reason that I wanted to share my story with you and make you aware of some of the things going on and things you can do to help.  I came across this article and it contains some important steps in reforming how the hiring process works for people in my position.  There is a movement right now that is pushing for “ban the box” reforms in hiring laws.  These efforts have already prevailed in twenty-three states and President Obama is considering taking Executive action on this issue.  Although this is not the end of the struggle for people like me it does give me hope about how we’ll be viewed in the future and the opportunities that will be out there for us.  Many people think this is a small issue, but anywhere from 70-100 million Americans face some sort of discrimination due to their criminal background.  Seriously, 70-100 million.  Here’s a link to the study.

The message that I want my readers to take away from this isn’t that life is wholly unfair, but that sometimes legitimate mistakes happen.  Sometimes people make poor choices.  I know I have many times.  But, we shouldn’t be defined by the few wrong decisions we make in our life.  We should be defined by the sum of our parts.  It’s with this spirit that I look forward to a new day where this issue will be much fairer to those who find themselves in a situation similar to mine.

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