Ban the box protest

Formerly incarcerated New Yorkers rally with VOCAL to ban the box outside City Hall. 

In Florida, enfranchisement for returning citizens comes a cost. Recent legislative changes to voter-approved Amendment 4 obligate former felons, some who struggle to find employment after their release, to pay all fees, fines, court and restitution costs before they can vote. This requirement furthers the stigma associated with being a former felon and stifles their voice and agency, experts say.

To help returning citizens transition successfully into the workforce, Miami-Dade County and other organizations in the public and private sectors have adopted a “Ban the Box” initiative, which excludes disclosure of criminal past in the initial job application process. At the grass-root level, successful former felons are taking matters into their own hands and employing returning citizens in an effort to help them get back on their feet.

In 2015, Miami-Dade County approved to ban the box, which allows candidates the opportunity to go through the application and interview processes without being asked or required to disclose information about their criminal history. The county conducts background checks after it has determined an applicant is best qualified and has been given a conditional offer of employment.

Close to 19 states have passed similar legislation.

Returning citizens face many challenges when reintegrating into their communities, the most pivotal of which is the label of being a formerly incarcerated person.

“The greatest challenge is the stigma of being an ex-felon,” said Wayne Rawlins, the lead facilitator with the South Florida Reentry Task Force. Returning citizens face challenges with acquiring driving licenses, as well as child support, housing and job placement.

In 2018, formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27 percent, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that studies the effects of mass criminalization. Black returning citizens experienced the most-severe levels of unemployment. About 44 percent of Black women and 35 percent of Black men were unemployed after being released from prison, according to the nonprofit.

“A lot of good guys are left behind,” said Michael Lee, a returning citizen who was incarcerated for over 25 years after being charged with first-degree murder.

The criminal questions in the application process cancel prospective candidates, Lee said. “Once you check the box, they already pre-judge you.”

Private companies have opted to leave off questions about criminal history until a candidate has been presented with a conditional job offer.

“This is a huge opportunity for everybody to think differently about the talent pool,” said Jenny Kim, deputy general counsel with Koch Industries. The  company, in partnership with the Society of Human Resource Management, is promoting a “Getting Talent Back to Work” initiative, in an effort to end what they consider outdated, non-inclusive hiring practices.

“One in three Americans has a criminal record, which means they are automatically blocked from housing, education, jobs and the right to vote,” Kim said. “People with criminal records are not necessarily considered part of the talent pool.”

The “Getting Talent Back to Work” initiative seeks to raise awareness about people who are overlooked because they possess a criminal record and to help companies improve their hiring practices. The initiative allows human resource leaders to properly evaluate applicants with criminal records by equipping them with the information, evidence-based best practices and industry guidance needed to reduce legal liability and increase inclusive hiring from a diverse talent pool. “This is about reducing recidivism,” Kim said. “People with criminal records are some of the hardest working people there are because they are so grateful for that second chance.”

Lee, who is the owner of Unique Carpet Tile and Upholstery, has committed himself to hire only former felons. He has employed five returning citizens since he opened his own carpet cleaning and pressure washing business close two years ago. Business is increasing, he said.

“I am doing pretty good for myself,” Lee said.

One of his employees is Reginald Dobson, who like Lee, was imprisoned for over 25 years serving time for a murder charge.

“I spent a lot of time during my incarceration preparing myself for the outside world,” Dobson said. He completed horticulture and landscaping certificates to help the transition process upon his release.

“I spent a lot of time on preparing myself for the world before I even got out to the world,” Dobson said. “The greater prepared you are, the greater opportunities you have.”

Lee echoed those sentiments. “You want to want to change,” he said.

Together, Lee and Dobson, have become advocates for Amendment 4 and second chances for returning citizens. They tour schools and correctional facilities, to talk about their experience and the success that is possible if one commits to leaving the negative past behind.

Lee plans to continue advocating for improved working opportunities for former felons and hopes more companies follow the county and Koch Industries’ stance to remove criminal history questions from the job application process. “It’s irrelevant,” he said.

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