"Ban the Box" in Higher Education

Quintin Williams is a FORCE leader and Research and Policy Fellow at Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights leading efforts to pass HB 3142 as part of the Restoring Rights and Opportunities Coalition of Illinois (RROCI). Quintin shares his research and calls for support to "Ban the Box" in higher education.

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
― Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

It is estimated that over 700,000 men and women leave prison and jails each year in the United States. A great majority, if not all, will at some point have to reckon with the question: Have you ever been convicted of a felony? This question appears on almost any application you can think of. Employers, insurance companies, realtors, and a host of other entities that provide critical services ask this question. The entities asking the question often think it to be a necessary component of ensuring public safety. For the person with the record, the question almost always signals impending rejection, judgement, and denial of opportunity. Returning citizens are not wrong in this assessment. One study showed that a felony conviction reduces the likelihood of a call back from an employer by 50% and that number increases to 60% for people of color with records1. So for people with records, especially people of color with records, encountering this question on an application can trigger feelings of shame, defeat, anger, and sadness. Which is why a new measure (HB 3142) to remove this question from public universities’ admission applications introduced by Representatives Barbara Wheeler and Mary Flowers is so important for so many.  

Education has long been noted to increase the prospects of social mobility. However, for returning citizens this prospect is diminished because of the stigma associated with a criminal record. A recent New York study showed that nearly 2/3 of individuals with felony convictions will stop completing an application process to college because of a questions regarding a criminal background, compared to 21% of other students2. Those figures do not include people who decide not to even start the application. With 42% of Illinois adults having a criminal record, this chilling effect on college applicants with records could be impacting thousands.

HB 3142 would prevent public universities in Illinois from asking about or considering a person’s criminal record for purposes of admission. The bill would not prohibit a college or university to consider a person’s criminal record after admission, and still allows campuses and universities to use the common application. This bill in no way interferes with public safety of college campuses. There is no evidence that demonstrates that asking about criminal records on these applications contributes to public safety. Furthermore, the US Department of Education released a report encouraging colleges and universities to re-think the use of criminal records questions on admissions applications3.  

In recent years universities across the country have been embroiled in controversy surrounding campus sexual assaults. Thus, when a bill proposing to eliminate inquiries about criminal history for admissions questions arise as to how a measure like this may affect this ongoing issue. First, as mentioned above there is no evidence that suggests that screening at admission reduces the likelihood of campus sexual assault. Moreover, universities are informed about any student who has a sex crime conviction under current Illinois statute (730 ILCS 150/3) and this bill does not interfere with that.

In the long run, this bill will actually increase public safety by decreasing the likelihood that someone will return to prison. Higher education has been shown to reduce recidivism significantly with each level of post-secondary education completed. More than that, in a world that treats people with records as second class citizens, getting an education can restore feelings of confidence, dignity, and respect for oneself and others. 

When I left prison almost 10 years ago to go into a work release program I was one of the 700,000 who faced a world of uncertainty. Going to college was an essential part of me laying a solid foundation for the future. As I prepare to finish my PhD in Sociology in the coming years, I cannot help but think of all the men and women who would also be on the same track to complete degrees had they not been asked this question. If this question was not presented to them as the defining feature of who they are; if it did not provoke fear, guilt, and inadequacy. I wonder how many educators, community leaders, social workers, mentors, and CEO’s we are losing. HB 3142 is about more than allowing people to go to school. It is a step in the direction in treating people with records like human beings, who have minds, who want to learn and grow just like everyone else. 

HB 3142 successfully passed the Illinois house with 65-49 vote. Now it is off to the Senate. We are hoping this bill makes it to the governor’s desk for his signature. Passing the house was the collective effort of the many leaders, policy experts, and staff within the ROCCI (Restoring Rights and Opportunities in Illinois coalition) coalition. This collective effort must remain as we continue to fight for the rights and humanity of our brothers and sisters who come home from jails and prisons each day. 

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  1.   Pager, D. The Mark of a Criminal Record, American Journal of Sociology, 108(5), 937-975 (2003).
  2.   BOXED OUT: CRIMINAL HISTORY SCREENING AND COLLEGE APPLICATION ATTRITION, Center for Community Alternatives
  3.   Beyond the Box, Home U.S. Department of Education
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