Faced with the "box," many people returning from prison fear there may be no way for them to make a living. The "box" refers to a check box on job applications that asks about criminal history.
Recently, community leaders, activists, small businesses, nonprofit organizations and corporate allies stress the need to give individuals a fair chance to obtain employment by banning the "box."
At Lindenwood University April 28, Jordan Richardson, an attorney and senior policy analyst with the Charles Koch Institute, told a gathering representing the varied groups that criminal justice reform is one in which conservatives and libertarians have similar views as more liberal-minded groups.
Checking the box means an individual often won't even get a call for an interview, Richardson said. Koch Industries has banned the box and found that employees it hired who had a criminal record are good workers, and many earn promotions.
"When we talk about 'Ban the Box,' we're talking about human dignity," Richardson said at the event sponsored by the Hammond Institute for Free Enterprise, echoing a concept of Catholic teaching about the dignity of work.
Having a job is the number one indicator of whether someone leaving prison will avoid reincarceration, Richardson said, noting that 650,000 people are released from prisons each year (U.S. Department of Justice figures). "No one should be defined by the worst day, and they should be free to pursue their God-given talents," Richardson said.
The Missouri Legislature has considered bills requiring public employers (state and local governments) to defer a criminal background check until after the job interview has been conducted or until a conditional offer of employment has been made. Public employers may still conduct a background check and refuse to hire a person.
The Missouri Catholic Conference supported the legislation, saying it would lower recidivism and help ex-offenders to become law-abiding citizens.
Last year, former Gov. Jay Nixon signed an executive order that would remove questions about a candidate's criminal history from initial job applications for state government. State agencies are still allowed to do criminal background checks later in the process.
According to the Missouri Catholic Conference, an estimated one in four adults have an arrest or conviction record that might be a barrier to future employment. Fifteen states and more than 60 cities and counties have adopted fair hiring policies similar to the legislation considered in Missouri. Numerous private companies such as Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Facebook and Xerox have also adopted a ban the box approach. Richardson urges employers to voluntarily agree to ban the box rather than laws targeting private employers.
A 2009 study by Harvard and Princeton researchers showed individuals who checked the box reduced their chances of a callback by 50 percent, with blacks hurt twice as much as whites. According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, the unemployment rate for Missourians on parole in 2015 was 44 percent.
Miriam Mahan, retired executive director of Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service in St. Charles who now is a social justice policy advocate there, said her agency removed questions about convictions on applications in 2015. The social service agency continues to administer intensive background checks for all potential employees, but the omission of the "box" prevents biases against the applicant and moves them on to the next phase of the hiring process — what she calls starting from a level playing field.
Mahan, a member of Sts. Joachim and Ann Parish, said the position falls in line with Catholic teaching on mercy. She is optimistic that other employers will follow and wants Gov. Eric Greitens to continue the policy set by Nixon.
"We embrace those who unfortunately made a mistake, and now we have to give them the ability to self-support," she said. "We complain about recidivism — people come out (of prison) and then they go back. But why do they go back? Because they like being in jail? That is not true. But if they cannot get employment, housing, health care — sooner or later they have to eat."
Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of Empower Missouri, said diverse groups have come together on the issue because "we know that we're spending too much money on incarceration. The things we've tried to do haven't been working. The number of people in prison in Missouri in the 1980s was around 8,000 and we have 32,000 as of 2016 (Bureau of Justice Statistics). Fair-chance hiring is a very positive kind of policy we can adopt."
Richardson points to those numbers as well. "Incarceration is the first response to everything," he said, an expensive option that falls hard on young Americans.