People with Records Have Fought Hard to “Ban the Box”

People with Records Have Fought Hard to “Ban the Box,” Let’s Build Upon Their Movement, Not Abandon It

You’ve likely heard the term “ban the box” – or maybe even “fair chance” hiring. Relatively broad awareness of these policies can be credited to two decades of vigorous organizing by people with arrest and conviction records and the communities of color that are disproportionately harmed by mass criminalization.  

Today, 37 states and nearly 200 cities and counties across the country have adopted some form of fair chance policy. They remove questions about past conviction records from job applications and delay background checks until later in the hiring process, at which point an applicant with a record is more likely to be fairly considered by the employer. (Both “ban the box” and “fair chance” generally refer to the same policies, but the latter does a bit more than remove “the box.”) 

I was recently asked to debate the merits of ban the box on an NPR show. The invitation offered an opportunity to reflect on fair chance hiring—not just as a policy accomplishment but as both an important steppingstone and a powerful rallying cry. Although a radio debate is the stuff of my nightmares, the fair chance movement certainly deserves a full-throated defense.  

Fair chance hiring is one significant step toward addressing the employment crisis facing people with records and the many negative consequences for families and communities across the country. The importance of banning the box becomes especially clear when you examine the patently unfair alternative. If our society continues to allow employers to systematically reject anyone with a record at step one—submission of a job application—stereotypes about workers with records will persist unchecked, and stigma (rooted in anti-Black racism) will continue to control hiring decisions.  

While important, I also describe fair chance hiring as one step because much more is needed. Ban the box is not a panacea. It doesn’t guarantee a job for someone with a record, but it enables a foot in the door. Data from employers that have banned the box demonstrate that fair chance policies can increase employment of workers with records because, later in the hiring process, employers are more likely to view applicants as more than just their conviction record 

No single policy change can level the systemic obstacles that block workers with records from achieving economic stability. Fortunately, lawmakers need not choose between fair chance hiring and the many other, complementary policy proposals. In fact, the low cost of ban the box makes it especially amenable to pairing it with other reforms, including increased support for soon-to-be and recently released individuals, who face the steepest employment barriers.  

Policy conversations about the rights of workers with records are expanding to ideas even bolder than removing questions about conviction records from job applications. But the fact remains that the ban the box movement—powered by people with records and their families—can be credited with bringing the unfair status quo to the national attention and spurring further nuanced policy discussions. Moreover, a strong fair chance policy (especially one that delays background checks until after a conditional job offer) lays the groundwork for effectively enforcing more expansive rights and responsibilities. 

The people whose lives have been directly impacted by mass incarceration have unparalleled insights into what needs to change and why. We started listening to those who have faced collateral consequences when they called for ban the box, and, in addition to examining relevant data, we must continue listening as they demand more 

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About the Author

Beth Avery

Areas of expertise:
  • Criminal Records & Employment

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