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‘Ban the box’ helps ex-offenders succeed

Mike Brady

More than 700,000 Americans are released from prison each year. We expect them to re-enter society and be law-abiding, but we make it extremely difficult for anyone who has served time to ever become gainfully employed, even though they have paid their debt to society. A barrier that needs to be removed is that box on standard job applications that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor?”

If you check “yes,” you will likely never hear from the potential employer again. It won’t matter how qualified or motivated you are. And with extremely limited legitimate earning options, the formerly incarcerated often re-offend and are re-incarcerated within a few years.

This destructive cycle not only devastates individuals, families and communities, it’s a recurring, ever-growing expense for taxpayers. The cost of keeping and guarding inmates now averages $31,286 per inmate per year. Each inmate represents tax money that could otherwise be spent on programs to grow the economy, and each inmate is one less employee whose consumer spending would spur growth for all kinds of companies. The U.S. incarcerates more individuals than any other nation, and 70 million Americans have some sort of criminal record — almost one in three Americans of working age. This revolving door system is unsustainable. One simple step can be a solution.

More than 100 cities, 20 states and the federal government have passed laws that “ban the box.” “Ban the Box” simply defers the question about a candidate’s criminal history until such time that a conditional job offer is made. And for certain jobs, such as those working with children, employers may still ask about relevant criminal history.

“Ban the Box” ensures that potential hires are evaluated based on experience, skills and future potential, not past mistakes for which they’ve already paid and that don’t relate to their current efforts to make a fresh start.

This change is small but the potential value is enormous, especially to candidates in chronically disadvantaged communities. To break the cycle of poverty caused by lack of job opportunities, individuals need and deserve a chance to start fresh. And we need farsighted companies to implement inclusive hiring models.

I recently joined 18 other business leaders at the White House to launch the Fair Chance Business Pledge. This pledge calls on all businesses to improve our communities by creating a path to a second chance for people with a criminal record. Companies signing the pledge included big names like American Airlines, Coca-Cola, Facebook, Georgia Pacific, Google, Koch Industries, and Xerox. So this isn’t something the business community is that scared of.

For more than 30 years, Greyston Bakery has been giving anyone willing to work hard a chance at employment. Our open hiring model focuses on a job candidate’s potential by providing employment opportunities, regardless of background or work history, while facilitating services and support to help employees succeed in the workplace and thrive in the community. Some of our productive and dedicated team members who were formerly incarcerated spent months or years searching for legitimate work, and were rejected by almost all other companies.

We’ve been practicing open hiring since 1982 because it works. Our employees are successful, hardworking and loyal, and we make high quality brownies for discerning customers like Ben & Jerry’s and Whole Foods Market. It’s safe to say it hasn’t hurt us.

Our society needs more companies to adopt more inclusive hiring policies. We all want to hire the best person for each job, and Ban the Box will ensure that potential hires are evaluated on skills, experience and potential rather than a mistake for which they have already paid.

A job is obviously essential for supporting oneself and one’s family, but it also provides confidence, dignity and self-worth, which has an encouraging ripple effect throughout any community. Let’s ban the box nationwide so qualified individuals, ready to work, have a real chance to be a contributing member of society.

Editor’s note: State law in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts does not bar companies from checking job applicants’ CORIs. The City of Boston’s Criminal Offender Record Information Ordinance, enacted in 2005, provides that persons and businesses supplying goods or services to the City of Boston deploy fair policies throughout the hiring process related to the screening and identification of persons with criminal backgrounds through the CORI system. The city does business only with vendors that have adopted and employ CORI-related policies, practices, and standards that are consistent with city standards.

Mike Brady is president of Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, NY.