Removing the Criminal Justice Information Questions from Job and College Applications

Emma Weiss is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a first-year MPP student.

The following is an op-ed and does not necessarily reflect the views of Policy Perspectives or the Trachtenberg school.

The Benefits of College and Employment

Perhaps one of the most universally accepted ideas in American culture is that college is a crucial part of a young person’s life. Countless movies and TV shows romanticize the rites of passage around college, from frat parties to graduation day. There are highly paid consultants whose sole job is to get their clients into their top schools. Every year, a handful of exuberant college acceptance videos go viral. While the mania around college might occasionally go a bit overboard, we are right to view higher education with reverence. Studies show that attending and graduating from college is extremely beneficial to one’s quality of life. 

College graduates are more likely to live healthier and longer lives. Generally, they exercise more and smoke less than those without a college degree. More importantly, they are more likely to be employed, have higher-paying jobs, and have greater job security. College graduates are prepared with better skills, knowledge, experience, and networks for gainful employment. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that those with a bachelor’s degree have an employment rate of 87% compared to 74% for those with only a high school diploma.

Employed individuals similarly reap monetary, psychological, and other long-term benefits from having a job. Employment provides financial stability, allowing employed people to cover basic day-to-day costs like housing, groceries, and transportation. A steady salary also helps secure one’s financial future; it can be put towards mortgage payments, retirement savings, or education. Other benefits of employment include mental stability, a sense of security, and stronger friendships. Also, according to a 2008 study, employment was found to be the single most important influence on decreasing prison recidivism, and that just 30 days of employment can lower the three-year recidivism rate by 62%.

The Issue of CJI Questions

Though the benefits of having a job are immense, those previously incarcerated or convicted of felonies do not necessarily get to enjoy them. Instead, they face numerous barriers to gainful employment, including the criminal justice information (CJI) questions asked on many job applications. Young people previously involved in the juvenile justice system face similar challenges when applying to college. Many schools ask applicants the question, “have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or other crime?” This question deters justice-involved youth from applying to college, as they may not wish for prospective schools to know this information before their admissions decision is made. 

The CJI question also deters applicants with a juvenile record, potentially discouraging them from applying at all. Research shows that the majority of individuals with a felony conviction did not finish their application after seeing the CJI question. A 2016 study completed on the SUNY Colleges showed that application attrition eliminated applicants fifteen times more often than those rejected by the admissions committee. 

Ban the Box Legislation

CJI questions on college and job applications have proven to be a systematic barrier for justice-involved individuals to access higher education and secure a steady job. This is why more than 35 states, 150 cities and counties, and most recently, the federal government have all passed “Ban the Box” legislation, which aims to eradicate or lower these barriers by prohibiting employers from asking CJI questions on job and college applications. In 2019, Congress passed the Fair Chance Act which stipulates that only after an applicant reaches the conditional offer stage, may employers ask them about their criminal history.

Several states, including Louisiana, California, and Pennsylvania, have already passed or are in the process of passing legislation that would prevent public schools in their state from asking about criminal histories on college applications. Additionally, the Common Application removed their CJI question, though it still gives colleges the option to add it back if they choose. 

Jurisdictions that have enacted BTB legislation have seen an increase in job applications, probability of employment, and employment rates among those with criminal records. A 2017 study using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 Cohort (2002-2015) found that, overall, BTB policies raise the probability of public employment for people with convictions by about 30% on average and increase their employment in the public sector by nearly 5%.  

In case studies of certain areas, it was found that after BTB legislation was enacted, the proportion of those with criminal records hired in the city of Durham, NC increased by about 800% from 2011-2014; there was a 33% increase in those hired with criminal records in Washington, D.C.; and in Atlanta, GA, those with convictions accounted for about 10% of new public hires between march and October 2013. 

Why Banning the Box Matters

Thus far, the implications of BTB legislation have been extremely positive. The promising results following the enactment of such legislation show how these policies not only grant justice-involved individuals greater access to employment, but also job, financial, and mental stability. Removing the CJI question from all college applications could expand the number of those who can reap the benefits of not only college, but employment too. 

Some may worry that without risking an applicant’s criminal history a school’s campus safety will be at risk, but a 2019 report found that the crime rates at colleges that admitted students with a criminal history are no greater than those that do not. Further, there is no evidence that asking about an individual’s criminal justice history decreases campus crime. 

Given the enormous benefits of ‘banning the box,” and encouraging results from jurisdictions that have already done so, local and federal policymakers should continue to explore how to lower barriers to employment and education for returning citizens. The economic and emotional benefits from these policies are key to improving the lives and well-being of one of this country’s most vulnerable groups.

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