How to Start a Fair Chance Campaign
To develop a fair chance campaign in your area, you will want to identify key advocates, develop supporting facts, know the research, develop goals, launch your campaign, get the details right, cultivate support, and use media. The following section provides concrete examples and solutions for developing a fair chance campaign in your area.
1. Identify the core group of fair chance advocates and organizers.
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2. Getting the facts to support that a fair chance is needed.
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Many fair chance campaigns begin when a core group of advocates and organizers devote their resources to energizing the community and educating the policymakers about barriers encountered by people with records. Not every campaign has all of the following participants in the beginning of the process, but the list below highlights key people for building a strong foundation over the course of a campaign:
Experienced organizers can inspire their members to plan and carry out creative and powerful actions to help lead a campaign. Some examples of member-based organizations include the formerly incarcerated, faith-based, criminal justice reform, and organized labor groups.
Advocates familiar with or connected to policymakers. These advocates have the political connections to help you navigate the landscape, gather more information, and garner the support you need from policymakers. Examples may be local legal, policy, or reentry-focused organizations that have experience lobbying.
Legal advocates who can assist in drafting or reviewing administrative or legal policies. The national experts at NELP can also provide support.
Directly-impacted people may be included in any of the categories above. Having the leadership and experiences of people with records and their families at the center of the campaign will keep its outcomes grounded in the needs of the community.
As experienced coalition members are aware, often there is a group of advocates who can devote the time to meeting regularly who are at the core of the effort. There may be numerous groups that are less-involved, but are supportive and critical to a broad-based effort. The core group keeps other members in the coalition up-to-date on significant developments, provides opportunities for input, and clarifies the events or items needed from the supporting groups, often through email or a listserv. For example, the supporting groups may sign a petition or ask their members to attend a hearing where a large presence is necessary.
3. Research to Support Your Fair Chance Campaign.
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As the group begins outreach to the community and policymakers, you will need the facts to back up your campaign.
Define the problem:
- “Millions of qualified job applicants in the country are plagued by a past record and are discouraged from applying to employment because a ‘box’ on job applications requires criminal history information that leads many employers to unfairly reject job applications. When people with records are shut out of jobs, public health and safety suffer. Already hard-hit communities of color are particularly impacted.”
The box is a barrier to jobs. One key element of the problem is that the “box” on the job application is unfairly restricting opportunities for people with records. This has a chilling effect on job applicants and artificially narrows the applicant pool of qualified workers. Both the employer and job applicant lose out. When applicants with records see the “box” on job applications, they often assume that their applications will be tossed out. There are qualified workers with records that the employer will lose the opportunity to consider because these workers may self-select out of the process. One of the best means to document this phenomenon is for workers themselves to be prepared to share their negative experiences in the job market with the “box.”
Even if a person with a record looks past the “box” and applies, it is too easy for an employer to toss out the “checked-box” application. A study commonly highlighted to substantiate this point is The Mark of a Criminal Record. The researcher found that in 50% of the cases, employers were unwilling to consider equally qualified applicants because of the criminal record. In other words, a record reduced the likelihood of a job callback by 50%.
The problem is pervasive and severe. Another key element of the problem is the large number of people with records impacted by employment barriers; this is a widespread problem and one which grows larger every day. Nationally, NELP estimated in 2011 in the report, 65 Million Need Not Apply, that there were 65 million U.S. adults with an arrest or conviction record. With updated statistics, NELP’s estimate in 2014 is that there are 70 million U.S. adults with a criminal record. On top of that, every year approximately 700,000 people are released from prison, and there are over 12 million arrests. The number of Americans with records continues to grow.
To frame the issue locally of the high volume of people with records, develop region-specific estimates. At the state level, an estimate may be possible using the methodology NELP used to determine the national number. We first accessed a survey of state criminal history record repositories from 2012, available here. To account for duplication (individuals who may have criminal records in more than one state), NELP conservatively reduced the national number cited in the survey by 30%. Comparing this figure with Census data for individuals that are 18 years and over gives an estimate of 29.3% or nearly one in three U.S. adults who has a criminal record. Using this percentage with Census data for the population of individuals that are over 18 years old in an individual state gives you a state estimate.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics provides the correctional population at the national and state-level here and arrest data at the local agency level here. State agencies frequently collect information on the number of people arrested and convicted, number of people incarcerated or under law enforcement supervision annually. To obtain additional information for your state or locality, look to probation, law enforcement departments, the state departments of justice or health and human services, or others. Although these numbers will not capture the majority of people with old records, they can be a powerful snapshot of the breadth of the issue in your local area.
Job barriers contribute to a broken criminal justice system. One of the most salient public policy issues today is the broken criminal justice system and the high recidivism rate. Advocates’ entry into fair chance campaigns often comes from the lens of criminal justice reform. Part of the problem is an expensive, inefficient, and damaging criminal justice system. Cite to the dollar amounts to incarcerate an individual in your state, as seen in the Vera Institute’s The Price of Prisons. For state-by-state information on recidivism, see Pew’s State of Recidivism. For the relationship between unemployment of people with records and public safety, see the NELP factsheet, Research Summary.
Job barriers drain the economy and undermine community well-being. Another effect of our broken criminal justice system is the negative impact that restricting job opportunities for workers has on children, families, the community, and larger society. Advocates can refer policymakers or a general audience to studies on financial losses to the individual, the stagnation of economic mobility of the family, or the billions in losses to the national economy. For studies providing these facts nationally, the NELP factsheet, Research Summary. For specific information about criminal justice expenditures at the state-level and at the large county- and city-level, see the U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics on justice expenditures.
Communities of color are especially hard-hit. A fair chance benefits everyone in the community. However, many organizers are drawn to this campaign because communities of color suffer disproportionately in the current justice system. Additionally, some argue that in too many employment policies a criminal record has become a proxy for race. The 2012 EEOC guidance on the use of arrest and conviction records in employment decisions provides a snapshot of the national data demonstrating that criminal record exclusions have a disparate impact on particular racial and ethnic groups. Local sources may have data broken down by race as well.
The solution. Fair chance legislation is not a panacea. Alone, these policies cannot redress the challenges described above. However, the initial stigma of a record is severe enough that targeting the practice of asking about conviction history on job applications is an important step toward fixing the broken system. Removing the “box” from the employment application and delaying inquiry into an applicant’s criminal history until later in the process will lower an unnecessary barrier to fairly competing for jobs. Research indicates that once an employer has had the chance to examine the qualifications of the applicant and in some cases understand the context of the record, the employer will be willing to hire the applicant. For example, in a study in which test pairs of potential workers, one with a criminal record and one without, applied for jobs, researchers found that having personal contact with the potential employer reduced the negative effect of a criminal record by approximately 15 percent. For a complete list of related research, see the NELP factsheet, Research Summary.
4. The goals and strategy for the fair chance campaign.
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Researchers throughout the country have used federal and state data sources, interviews with people with records and their families, and audits of businesses to determine the role of employment in fighting recidivism and to document the hurdles that people with records face in attaining employment. As part of its work to support a fair chance, NELP collects and analyzes these studies to inform policymakers and advocates who are designing their own fair chance policies. With millions of people in our communities suffering the effects of diminished access to work, it is imperative that this volume of scholarly and investigative work is widely available. NELP will periodically update its factsheet to reflect new findings from the field. See the NELP factsheet, Research Summary.
At the same time, the dozens of cities and states that have already passed fair chance policies—and the list grows by the day—provide an ideal laboratory to study how delaying conviction history inquiry results in increased opportunity for those with records to find employment. NELP urges advocates and policy makers to include data collection and analysis as part of their fair chance legislation. Accountability, transparency, and data collection are among the best practices in public policy, and including these provisions in new bills will result in better outcomes for people with records, more employment in the communities to which they return, and models for the most effective measures. Contact NELP for assistance in crafting these measures. We greatly appreciate your sharing models, data, or reports that result so that your efforts can help inform the next generation of fair chance bills.
5. Launching the fair chance campaign.
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One of the goals of a fair chance campaign is to educate the community about the barriers that people with records endure and how this negatively impacts the individual, her family, and the entire community. Changing the hearts and minds of the public, humanizing people with records, and diminishing the stigma attached to a criminal record are top priorities of any campaign. Leverage public outreach and the media to educate the community about the local and national facts you’ve developed that make this issue a critical issue for every American and every person in your area.
Complementing your public education goal is the development of your policy goals. One of the key questions for your coalition is the scope of your policy goals. See the NELP Best Practices and Model Policies as a starting point for your policy development. These model policies provide a comprehensive menu of options that can be adjusted for your local region. In shaping the parameters of your policy, consider the following:
Who? Will the new policy apply to only the government employer, or to government contractors and/or private employers? To maximize the impact of the policy, consider extending it to private employers where most hiring occurs. By now, fair chance policies have been tried and tested for years and some private employers (like Target and Wal-Mart) have adopted these policies for all of their stores. Applying the policy to government employers may be the best option in challenging political landscapes, but more campaigns today are starting with a comprehensive policy that includes at least government contractors. Another basis for extending the policy to private employers is the potential for civil rights violations for private and employment decisions that consider records.
What? How robust will the new policy be? The new policy could focus only on removing the question from job applications and delaying inquiry, but a more effective policy would incorporate how a record can be considered or would better connect workers to job opportunities. The NELP Model Policies provides an extensive list for options. Simply removing the question from the job application and delaying inquiry is a straightforward, procedural change, but to maximize the policy, consider additional components in the Model Policies. To combine a “ban the box” approach with “targeted hiring” in the local community, see Community Hiring Model Language.
How? What’s the best vehicle for the new policy? For city and county campaigns consider an administrative change, a resolution, or ordinance. For state campaigns, consider an executive or administrative order or legislation. Note that administrative or executive changes may not be possible if the new policy applies to non-government employers. The most long-lasting impact would be accomplished by adopting a law, such as a regulation or statute. However, in some jurisdictions a sympathetic executive branch or city manager could quickly incorporate a new policy. An administrative change could then provide the foundation for a new law down the road. See the NELP Model Policies.
The decision-making process.
As you shape the parameters of the new policy, consider the decision-making process each option would entail. This will help you understand what is politically feasible.
Who are the decision-makers? What are the decision-makers top issues? Who influences the decision-makers? Tap into your coalition’s experience with local decision-making. As a starting point, many local and legislative bodies have websites with helpful information, such as descriptions of committees and the schedules for meetings.
Who will be the author, sponsor, and/or champion for the new policy? Lining up a champion on the inside of the decision-making process will help you understand the political landscape and focus your strategy. Once your coalition has a better sense of its policy goals, it may be appropriate to meet with an ally decision-maker for feedback. If you’re aiming for a law, then you may need a formal champion in the form of a “sponsor” or “author” of the legislation.
- What’s the timeline for the process? A local knowledgeable advocate, the staff of your government champion, and government websites can help map out the timeline.
Introducing a law? If you’re introducing legislation, you’ll want to find out more about lobbying in your area and have a plan for outreach to the elected officials. Meeting with staffers and/or the elected officials to cultivate support may be necessary at several points.
At this point your coalition understands the facts and has the national and local information to support your argument. To broaden your base of support, develop outreach materials using this information. Common materials include a factsheet or FAQ. Below are examples and templates:
To broaden your base and launch the campaign:
Cultivate spokespeople to put a human face on facts and figures. Policymakers and the general public want to know how proposed policies will help real people in their daily lives. However, many people are keenly aware of the social stigma of having a record and “going public” can be personally challenging. Employers with fair hiring practices may also fear repercussions. Despite these concerns, undoubtedly, it is the courageous acts of directly-affected people, their family members, and business leaders who have been willing to speak out publicly in favor of these policies that have been most influential in changing the hearts and minds of the public. As an example of how to incorporate spokespeople stories into your campaign, see these placards and public education materials from New York. See Cultivating Voices in Support of a Fair Chance for more tips and examples.
Hold an event like a community or town hall meeting on the barriers to opportunities for people with records and rally the public to support the concrete solutions offered by the fair chance campaign. Starting with a faith-based group or other groups with regular meetings may be a first step.
Circulate a petition for individuals to sign affirming that they support the concepts in your proposal.
Ask for the endorsements of community, reentry, civil rights, labor, faith-based, criminal justice, law enforcement, homeless, youth, workforce development, veteran, and racial justice groups in your area. Be creative and think broadly. Some groups have asked for endorsements through email blasts and targeted phone calls. If your policy proposal applies to private employers, consider whether you can get major or small businesses to sign on as “fair chance employers.”
Cultivate your allies with broad and deep networks. Understand who the influential leaders or groups are in the community and invest in one-on-one discussions. These allies will help your community meetings, petition, or endorsement efforts be successful.
Plan a lobby day with visits to the elected officials, if you’re introducing legislation. A lobby day could range from a small group of key spokespeople meeting with officials to hundreds of participants making visits with coordinated messages, buttons, or T-shirts, culminating in a rally. Consider adding-on the fair chance legislation to other related lobby day events.
Include a media plan for your launch. Consider elements like a press conference, seeking editorial endorsements, developing a social media strategy, and developing the tools to ensure your team can engage the media effectively. To leverage the media, see below, Amplifying a Fair Chance Through the Media.
6. Getting the details right for a fair chance policy.
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7. Cultivating voices in support of a fair chance.
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While the coalition garners public support, the language of the fair chance policy must be developed. After introducing the basic concept of the new policy, being able to propose a complete policy to policymakers makes “the ask” concrete and ensures it includes all of the necessary elements.
More information-gathering. A simple policy may not require a significant investment in time, but more robust policies may require multiple coalition meetings and information-gathering meetings with government personnel and your government champion. A policy addressing private employers or government contractors will entail understanding the compliance and enforcement mechanisms that are possible in your area. Any meetings with government personnel may be best setup through your government champion and timed appropriately in the process.
Working with legal experts. Policy advocates or attorneys familiar with the local and state laws can help navigate the language and discussion with government personnel. Expect government legal counsel to provide feedback or even pushback. Contact NELP for support with language.
Provide examples. Depending on your policy requests, counter any resistance with examples of other areas’ policies to support your proposal. For example, the policymakers may be most interested in a sister city or state in your region, or a locality that has enacted a similar policy. NELP provides a complete listing of known cities, counties, and states. The summary charts in the back of NELP guides provide highlights of the policies such as those areas that extend to private employers or government contractors. Each guide includes links to the adopted laws and policies. See the NELP Best Practices and Model Policies for information on how to draft a fair chance law or policy.
8. Amplifying a fair chance through the media.
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Developing strong spokespeople in support of your fair chance policy is key to ensuring that the public is educated about the broad depth and diversity of support for these policies. In addition to elevating the voices of people with records who face poor job prospects, the campaign should feature allies who can speak to different reasons for championing the policy.
For example, members of the police force, probation or parole departments can highlight the fact that fair chance policies increase public safety and lead to reduced recidivism. Leaders in the faith community can speak to the role of redemption and bringing people with criminal records back into the community. A local business owner may be able to share her own struggles with employment having a criminal record or her positive experience with retaining loyal and committed employees—who happen to have records. Policymakers can speak to a “smart on crime” and an unemployment-reducing strategy that, respectively, lowers criminal justice spending and minimizes the use of public funds to support unemployed people and their families. Developing these spokespeople early and throughout the campaign will allow you to respond to specific requests for information or negative attacks on the policy.
Below are quotes from business leaders, state and federal legislators, faith leaders, and city human resource departments that will help you situate your fair chance campaign in the national movement. In addition, actively develop local spokespeople who can provide area-specific information, respond to press requests, and attend meetings with policymakers. We have included a NELP-branded flyer with relevant quotes for your use. In addition, we have a Word document template available that we encourage you to brand with your organization and select the quotes relevant to your campaign.
Major Corporations Target and Wal-Mart Ban the Box Nationally. “Wal-Mart removed the criminal history box from its application in 2010, said spokeswoman Dianna Gee. ‘The removal does not eliminate the background check or drug test, but it offers those who’ve been previously incarcerated a chance to get their foot in the door,’ she said.” Target’s Vice President and General Counsel of Employee and Labor Relations, Jim Rowader, said of the company’s ban the box policy: “We’re interested in a safe workplace and shopping environment . . .” Star Tribune, Target to Ban Criminal History Box on Job Applications (Oct. 26, 2013).
U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) Understands that the “Box” is a Barrier. “I know a guy about my age in Kentucky, who grew marijuana plants in his apartment closet in college. 30 years later, he still can’t vote, can’t own a gun, and when he looks for work he must check the box, the box that basically says: ‘I’m a convicted felon and I guess I’ll always be one’. . . This is a lifelong problem then with employment. . . It makes it very difficult.” Senator Rand Paul, Senate Judiciary Committee Testimony (Sept. 16, 2013).
State Delegate Rob Krupicka (D-VA) Says Ban the Box Will Save Millions. “Preventing ex-offenders from finding employment not only increases the individual’s chances of recidivating, but it potentially costs Virginia millions of dollars every year. Each year, Virginia releases approximately 13,000 ex-offenders . . . [and] it costs $25,000 per year to house one prisoner . . . Banning the box can lower the crime rate, while saving Virginia millions of dollars.” Delegate Rob Krupicka, Times Dispatch, It’s Time to Ban the Box for Ex-Offenders (Mar. 31, 2014).
New Orleans Banned the Box to Reduce Recidivism. “The City of New Orleans is committed to recruiting a broad, diverse, and skilled workforce. It has been shown that a criminal conviction is often a limitation in seeking gainful employment, and access to employment is a proven means of reducing recidivism that helps reintegrate individuals into the community. . . The City wishes to safely remove barriers . . . while still affirming the right . . . to deny candidates employment because their prior criminal convictions have a direct relationship to the job . . .” First Deputy Mayor Andrew Kopplin, Policy for Review of Employment Candidates' Criminal History (Ban the Box) (Jan. 10, 2014).
Years After Banning the Box, Austin Human Resources Director is Still a Believer. “‘We don’t hire people because they [have records], we hire people because they’re the most qualified,’ notes Mark Washington, human resources director for the City of Austin in Texas. The city has an obligation to support qualified [people with records] in their transition to civic life: ‘There is a social responsibility for government to help enable that benefit for the community,’ he explains. ‘The more productive and employable we can make all of our citizens, the more they can provide to the society they live in.’” Human Resources Director Mark Washington, HR Magazine (Feb. 2012).
Ban the Box is Win-Win for Business and Job Seekers. “This unanimous decision to ‘ban the box’ [in Louisville, KY] is a ‘win-win’ for our city,” says Rev. Larry Sykes of Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together. “It will make a huge difference for thousands of people in the city, and by extending the policy to include vendors who do business with the city, there will be thousands of business who will earn the benefits of opening their doors more fully to people who are skilled and motivated to be quality employees.” Rev. Larry Sykes, Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together, Heart of Bluegrass State is Latest to “Ban the Box,” with Bipartisan Support (March 17, 2014).
Part of erasing the stigma of a criminal record involves educating the public about what having a record really means and the struggles that people with records face every day. Consider developing a media plan for your campaign that will help you reach a broad cross-section of the public. Even with a limited budget, you can add an effective media component to your campaign that will help shape the public debate.
Consistent messaging. First, you want to develop a consistent and powerful message for your coalition. After you develop talking points that resonate with your local area’s concerns, share them with your coalition members so you are all pushing out a consistent message. Your factsheets and other outreach materials will use this same messaging. Note that many groups avoid using stigmatizing labels such as “ex-offenders” or “ex-convicts.” NELP, inspired by groups like All of Us or None, uses terms that lead with “people” in order to humanize people with records.
Worker stories. Cultivate worker stories, and prep your spokespeople to interact with the media. Reporters need people’s real-life stories to illustrate the issue. For examples, see the NELP Ban the Box Media Compilation.
Media presence for your campaign launch. Media presence for your campaign launch. If you’re planning a campaign launch, such as a rally or town hall, consider inviting the media or holding a press conference. Identify speakers who can explain why the policy is important and deliver brief but powerful testimony. Speakers may include an affected worker, a supportive voice in law enforcement, a representative of the local faith-based community, an employer (if the policy applies to private-sector business), and your government champion. You may decide that a press conference is premature for the campaign launch, but it could be a perfect forum to introduce legislation once you have powerful allies in place.
Social media plan. Use your coalition’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. These are free ways to circulate your message. Recommend posts and tweets with specific hashtags and ask your coalition to disseminate them widely. Consider coordinating tweets with coalition partners at critical moments in the campaign. By engaging with crucial “influencers” (i.e., policymakers, business leaders, journalists, or organizations with large followings), social media posts are more likely to catch the attention of large audiences. If your coalition has the capacity to develop information graphics or purchase social media ads, then consider using these resources to escalate the reach of your posts.
Editorial endorsements. Endorsements from local influential media outlets raise the profile of your campaign and will help shape the public dialogue. Consider drafting short editorial board memos (2-3 pages maximum) explaining why the new policy is needed, why it’s relevant news, and who supports it. Offer editorial boards the opportunity to meet with key campaign drivers to ask questions or collect quotes from workers or community leaders.
Develop op-eds, press releases, and pitch your story. Coalition members, influential allies, and unlikely voices in support of a fair chance should submit op-eds. Prepare a list of local reporters who write on issues of public safety, workers, business, or the economy, and reach out to them. Circulate your press releases for newsworthy events such as the launch of your campaign, your lobby day, the introduction of the legislation, and major victories. Encourage reporters to follow your coalition’s Twitter feeds during significant moments in the campaign.
The NELP Ban the Box Media Compilation provides examples of articles, op-eds, editorial endorsements, press releases, campaign videos, and e-campaign materials.