Kissy Mason understands the importance of second chances. As she grew up in Minneapolis in the '80s and '90s, she watched her family members move in and out of prison and saw the discrimination they faced as a result.
“People in my family were being locked up, and then they were locked out of a right to live, a right to employment,” she said.
Unemployment is a huge barrier to the success of ex-offenders outside prison walls.
Mason decided early on that she wouldn't follow in their footsteps and end up in the prison system. After moving around Minnesota, she returned to Minneapolis to earn her associate's degree in criminal justice. But in 2006, a domestic argument got out of control and led to a conviction. Mason was offered probation—but her record was no longer clean.
Because of a background check that brought up the incident, she no longer qualified for low-income, or Section 8, housing and struggled to find employment. “At that time,” she said, “I had three children, and I was trying to provide for them.”
“Sometimes people bar you from jobs forever because of one incident, and I don’t think that’s fair,” Mason said. “People should be given another chance. It shouldn’t be one time and you’re out.”
Mason’s story is not unique. Nearly 70 percent of those released from prison in the United States will be arrested again within three years of release. Unemployment is a huge barrier to their success outside prison walls.
“Many return to their communities with no more skills and resources than when they were arrested and incarcerated,” says Victoria Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. “For many, during their incarceration technology has changed so much that the skills that they do have might be obsolete.”
But Mason didn’t accept the situation as it was. Instead, she became involved with a campaign to reduce the employment discrimination faced by former offenders through policies that prevent employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal record, at least in the early phases of the process.
It’s an idea that’s catching on: Legislation of this type has been passed in one form or another in more than 60 counties, cities, and states, according to the National Employment Law Project—and that number is growing.
These policies are known by the phrase “ban the box,” coined in 2003 by All of Us or None, an organization founded by formerly incarcerated people who faced barriers to employment. The “box” refers to the little square on job applications that potential employees are asked to check if they’ve ever been convicted of a felony.
“Ban the box” policies aim to remove this question from job applications.
Law sees “ban the box” policies as a necessary step in improving the outlook for ex-offenders. “For initial employment applications to include a box asking about felony convictions is yet another hurdle for a person to surmount to be able to survive post-prison,” she said.
In most cases, “ban the box” policies do not stop potential employers from conducting criminal background checks, but instead delay the process until an employer has had the opportunity to get to know the employee's qualifications first, usually through at least one face-to-face interview.
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed a statewide “Ban the Box” bill into law on Jan. 1, 2014. That day was a triumph for TakeAction Minnesota, the network of unions and progressive groups who led the movement to develop and pass the legislation.
TakeAction members knew they faced an uphill battle. Minnesota’s majority-Republican legislature wasn’t a natural ally of legislation that benefited former prisoners, and the state had one of the largest gaps in employment rates between whites and other races in the country. The group decided to split its attention between pushing for new legislation and pressuring corporations to adopt fairer hiring standards on their own.
As a major employer based in Minnesota, Target was the obvious choice. TakeAction members began calling on Target executives to adopt fairer hiring practices back in 2012 and held rallies at the company’s headquarters, but failed to receive the response they hoped for.
The group had better luck after it partnered with 150 formerly incarcerated people who had applied for seasonal positions at Target in 2012. Not surprisingly, none of them were hired—but the rejections were tangible proof of the discrimination that former offenders faced as they applied to jobs.
With the help of TakeAction Minnesota, 10 of the rejected applicants would later file complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Kandace Montgomery, an organizer with TakeAction, credits the mounting pressure on Target and the subsequent attention from the press as key factors in the passage of Minnesota's "ban the box" law.
The high volume of job applicants with records also served as the opening for a conversation between activists and executives at Target, who in October 2013 agreed to “ban the box” in all Target stores nationwide.
Making it easier for formerly incarcerated people to find work isn’t the only expected benefit of “ban the box” legislation. Supporters also believe that these policies will help bring down the United States’ incarceration rate—which is the highest in the world—and make neighborhoods safer as well.
”Giving them a chance to reintegrate into communities and support families is going to be part and parcel of reducing incarceration rates,” said Madeline Neighly, a staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project. As she puts it, it’s about being “smart on crime” instead of “tough on crime.”
“We’re creating safer communities not through locking up community members but by giving them opportunities and second chances,” she said, adding that positive press about the policies is leading to a broader conversation on what it means to have a criminal record.
It’s an impressive achievement for supporters of “ban the box” legislation. Yet back in Minnesota, Mason points out that these polices alone won’t eliminate the barriers faced by formerly incarcerated people.
Ex-offenders still deal with driver’s licensing restrictions, prejudice after the job interview has been completed, and, in some states, limited voting rights. Furthermore, the background checking process needs to be reviewed—Kissy says her own conviction was pulled up even after it had been expunged.
There’s still a long way to go, Mason says, but “ban the box” is a good first step.
• Nur Lalji wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media project that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Nur is a contributor to YES! based in the Seattle area. Follow her on Twitter at @nuralizal.