The Movement to Ban the Box

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee signs the Fair Chance ordinance. Photo courtesy San Francisco Mayor's Office.

When Dorsey Nunn gets discouraged, he replays a voicemail message he received four years ago--and has yet to delete. In May 2010, a fellow advocate called Nunn to deliver some good news: "I love you, Dorsey! The State of Connecticut just banned the box."
 

As the executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children/All of Us or None, Nunn long has been at the forefront of a fight that’s very close to his heart: to reduce barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated people through a movement called Ban the Box. A major solution to putting formerly incarcerated individuals on a path to leading productive lives is access to jobs. One small but powerful barrier to employment is the box on job applications that requires applicants to disclose any prior offenses, even for convictions that are very old or minor.
 
Millions of Americans—one in four adults—have arrest or conviction records that often follow them throughout their lives. In California, an estimated seven million people have criminal records that might cause them to lose out on even the chance at a job.
 
In 2006, San Francisco adopted one of the first policies to eliminate questions about past convictions from public agency job applications. Due to the work of All of Us or None, the National Employment Law Project, and others, the campaign gained momentum across the country, and more than 55 cities and nine states followed suit. But until 2013, the state of California had not adopted Ban the Box legislation.
 
“It was slow in the state of California at the beginning, which was a little frustrating to watch,” said Nunn. “We knew from the beginning that the harder we pushed it here, the greater chance of success the movement would have of banning the box nationally.”
 
Success finally came last year when Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 218, abolishing the box for job applications across every city, county or other public agency throughout the state.
 
“When we sealed the deal in California last year it was really huge for us, an extremely important victory,” said Nunn. “At issue is the question of ‘how do formerly incarcerated people get back into society?’ For someone who is a former prisoner, the law has said it is okay to be three-quarters of a human being once you’ve been convicted of a crime. We’re asking for equal access. For fairness.”
 
The passage of the law in California is a major step, but the leaders and organizations working for criminal justice reform know there is more to be done.
 
“AB 218 is the minimum, and applies only to public sector employees. We’d like to see policies across California that include private contractors, and in which the questions aren’t asked until candidates have a conditional offer of employment,” said Maurice Emsellem, program director for NELP in Oakland.
 
One of the biggest challenges—quite literally—is how massive California is geographically, encompassing 58 diverse counties, more than 500 cities, and over 3,000 special districts. In January, NELP released a guide to implementation of AB 218 to help all of those cities, counties, and agencies. NELP hosted a webinar on March 12 featuring Assemblymember Dickinson to walk public agencies through implementation and other steps that go beyond the minimum requirements of the law.
 
At the same time, while NELP and its partners are creating strategies for providing local advocates with all the resources they need to hit the ground running, they’re looking to ensure that more key cities and counties adopt particularly strong versions of Ban the Box.
 
In San Francisco, NELP, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children/All of Us or None, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and others pushed for one of the nation’s most comprehensive local ordinances, removing barriers in private employment and housing for people with criminal records. The city’s Fair Chance Act strengthens and expands San Francisco’s Ban the Box practices to include most private businesses, affordable housing, and city contractors. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the expanded Ban the Box legislation in February, and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee signed it into law in March.
 
Michelle Natividad Rodriguez, staff attorney with NELP, is hopeful that the movement’s successes will serve as a springboard for legislation that dives deeper in 2014 and beyond. “This issue has really resonated with so many groups on the ground across a wide spectrum—it’s absolutely magnetic,” said Rodriguez. “This year, we’ll focus on what else we can we do to build on the momentum. How can we rope in private employers in California, and identify other opportunities? Unions, for instance, were a huge part of this effort, and there are a lot of other criminal justice workforce-related issues they can be helpful with.”
 
Adoption of similar hiring policies by more of the country’s most prominent companies also could prove tide-turning. Four states across the country, including Minnesota, have extended their Ban the Box policies to private employers, and Minneapolis-based Target enacted a version of the policy nationwide in January 1 this year.
 
“We would love to companies like Amazon Ban the Box, but you can’t just write a letter,” said Rodriguez.
 

Nunn expects All of Us or None to keep pushing the envelope as far as it can. “The trail we’re running down now is a multi-sector trail,” he explained. One branch would see Ban the Box policies extended to housing in both the public and private sectors. “The way it is now, even if you have a job, if you have no place to live, you can’t work.”
 
Another would see nonprofit and social justice organizations adopting Ban the Box hiring policies, a campaign All of Us or None has spearheaded with the “Fair Chance Pledge.” “If you believe in justice, include the policy within your own structure,” said Nunn.
 
Advocates know that, despite mounting support for widespread Ban the Box measures, they have to be patient.
 
“Our work isn’t a sprint, it’s a long haul fight,” Nunn acknowledged. “Limiting access to jobs and housing not only victimizes formerly incarcerated people, but also generations and generations of children and grandchildren. We don’t have the luxury of stopping.”