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Ban the Box for Racial Justice

When we met in 2014, I was canvassing to raise Oakland’s minimum wage, and John was working as a Burger King security officer. He had recently been released after spending one-third of his life in prison and was focused on moving forward to create a stable home for his son.

John was making just $10 per hour, which was certainly not enough to raise a family in the Bay Area. But it was the only job he could get as a convicted felon. It didn’t matter that he was an FAA licensed aircraft mechanic. Employers saw John’s record and immediately moved his resume to the “no” pile.

Studies show that one of the most important factors for success after prison is a stable, good-paying job. Yet, formerly incarcerated people like John are regularly discriminated against once they check “the box” on job applications asking about criminal history. They are often left with only losing choices: chronic unemployment, low wages they can’t survive on, or the street economy. No wonder recidivism rates hover between 45 to 61%.

What’s more is that 1 in 3 Black men are incarcerated in their lifetime, and only 5% of African American applicants with a criminal record get call backs from employers. “Ban the Box” is critical to not only providing people with a second chance, but it is a matter of racial justice.

Today, John and I are working with Revive Oakland – an EBASE-led coalition of community organizations, faith leaders, and unions – to secure one of the strongest Ban the Box policies in the country at the Port of Oakland. The Port is home to a new state-of-the-art logistics and warehouse complex where companies like Amazon and Target move their products that end up on your doorstep.

Our policy not only removes questions about criminal record, but also limits background checks to only when required by law or absolutely necessary for the position. It requires the employer to consider the context of the conviction, including the person’s age at the time of the offense, time passed since, and whether or not it even relates to the job requirements.

We supposedly live in a country where we can lift ourselves up. The scarlet letter of past incarceration denies people employment, which deprives people of their ability to raise their families with dignity. Ban the Box reduces discrimination – particularly against Black men; prevents recidivism; and most importantly, restores people’s full humanity.

By Jahmese Myres and John Jones

We want to express our gratitude for legal advocates like National Employment Law Project (NELP), East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) and organizations led by formerly incarcerated people like Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) and All of Us of None. More information about Ban the Box and issues of formerly incarcerated people can be found through these organizations.