Ban the Box: How it Benefits Everyone in the Community and Reduces Violence
by Sarah Brown
Imagine: you are just released from incarceration. You want to make changes. You don’t want to go
back. You realize the keys to achieving this include finding a place to live, connecting with your family
and community, and, of course, finding a job.
You set out, attempting to complete online job applications. Only time and time again, you are
immediately bounced from the online application system, without having a chance to complete the
application. This happens upon responding to the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”
Not only your intentions, but all your skills, education, past experience, are out the window—you have
no chance to show an employer who you really are or what you are capable of. Where does this leave
Every year roughly 20,000 individuals are released from incarceration in Illinois, and, sadly, this scenario
has been a reality for a great number of them. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, in
2011 the recidivism rate was 47%, translating to continued crime and violence within the community,
particularly the neighborhoods to which these individuals are released. “No matter how they’ve turned
their lives around, no matter all the things they’ve done after completing their sentences, people are
still not being allotted an opportunity to take care of themselves and their family, not being given a
chance to get the jobs they need and deserve and have earned,” states Todd Belcore, Lead Attorney in
the Community Justice Unit at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, and an advocate for
the formerly incarcerated.
Enter Ban the Box, a new law, which took effect on January 1st of this year. Ban the Box prohibits most
public and private employers from inquiring about job applicant’s criminal background on applications.
The “box” in “Ban the Box” refers to the check box on job applications inquiring about conviction
history. Besides removing this question from job applications, employers must also refrain from asking
about criminal background during interviews or doing a background check, prior to being ready to make
a job offer to the applicant.
The Ban the Box movement first started in the 1990’s in Hawaii by formerly incarcerated people. More
locally, State Representative LaShawn Ford was first to bring the bill on the scene in 2007 and is largely
touted by advocates as responsible for the bill’s success. Known as Illinois House Bill 5701, it was again
introduced by Representative Rita Mayfield (D) on February 14th, 2014, and signed into law by Governor
Quinn in July 2014. Illinois joins twelve other states in enacting such legislation. The City of Chicago
followed suit of the Illinois state law, as well as that of over 60 other American cities, in November 2014.
While the state law applies to employers with 15 or more employees, the city ordinance applies to any
employer regardless of how many they employ. Ban the Box legislation stems from the hard work by
teams of community advocates, state legislators’, and individuals being personally impacted by these
Sometimes referred to as the Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act, Ban the Box opens an
opportunity to job seekers—automatically disqualified for employment opportunities previously based
on criminal background—to highlight themselves, their skills and their qualifications. “The purpose is for
somebody not to be screened out on initial application, merely because they checked yes to the box,”
states Beth Johnson, Director of Legal Programs at Cabrini Green Legal Aid and advocate for the law’s
passing. She continues, “It is all too often being used as a screening tool by employers for candidates.
The point is for someone to be allowed to walk into the door to prove that they would be a good
employee and only then would the employer be able to inquire into their background, so a judgment or
assumption is not being made about a person merely because of their criminal record. An employer
would look at their credentials overall. Are they qualified to do the job? Do they have the proper
education, the experience, the wherewithal, the motivation to be a good employee?”
“It gives them a chance to tell their story,” states Chris Patterson, community organizer at ONE
Northside, who also advocated for the law, “because up to now that felony question followed people,
even when they’re ten to fifteen years from the criminal justice system.”
“We have people with convictions from twenty years ago. We have people with master’s degrees, who
still can’t get a job,” states Anthony Lowery, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Safer Foundation,
who played an active role in getting the law passed.
Ban the Box does not mean that an employer cannot ask about conviction history at any point in the
hiring process however. It just means that employers have to wait to look into conviction history until
they have interviewed the candidate and are prepared to offer that individual the job.
Exceptions to Ban the Box pertain to certain employers in the emergency medical services field, as well
as to employers required by law not to hire individuals with certain convictions. Another exception
includes situations where hiring an individual may require a fidelity bond (a type of employment
insurance) but the prior conviction prohibits obtaining a fidelity bond for that person. Employers in
violation of this new law can be investigated by the Department of Labor, which could result in civil
action by the department and fines of up to $1,500.
On a positive, Ban the Box is great news for employers in that they will now have a larger pool of
qualified candidates to choose from when hiring, meaning they can employ the best person for the job.
The law is also in line with best practices for hiring.
Ban the Box has even larger implications however. “In light of the new Jim Crow, the bottom line is
having a criminal record is a proxy for being denied a job for race. Employers can say, ‘We’re not hiring
anyone with a criminal record at all.’ And that’s tantamount in our current justice system, which
disproportionately affects people of color, saying I’m not hiring people from these five neighborhoods in
Chicago,” states Belcore, who played an integral role in advocating for the law’s passing. According to
data released in 2012 by the Illinois Department of Corrections, the vast majority of people released
from incarceration to the city of Chicago, roughly 12,000 individuals of the total released, wind up in
only five different zip codes within the city.
According to a 2010 published report by the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study, while
controlling for other factors, such as criminal history, African Americans and Latinos are 1.8 and 1.4
times, respectively, more likely than whites to be prosecuted for a crime in Cook County. The same
report states that African Americans defendants are more than five times more likely than white
defendants to be convicted on nonviolent offences, such as drug charges. White defendants were twice
as likely as African American defendants to be given court supervision or probation.
Regarding the denial of employment based on criminal background, Belcore states, “This is the civil
rights issue of our time in that people are being denied access to jobs and opportunities based on things
that should not necessarily be relevant in the hiring process. Just as race was, at one point used to
discredit individuals and determine them not being qualified or worthy for an opportunity, criminal
records are being used similarly to determine that people aren’t qualified for an opportunity no matter
how long ago a case took place, no matter what the case was about, and no matter what job they’re
Additionally Ban the Box may go a long way in decreasing violence within the communities. Patterson
states while doing work around violence prevention within the community, “One of the things we were
hearing is that unemployment was a serious factor when it came to violence prevention. Young people
who had criminal records were getting denied access to employment because many of them had felony
Lowery states, “The challenge that we have in the city of Chicago is troubling because most of the
people with criminal records live in the communities most impacted by poverty and violence. The
people in these communities see nobody who has been in that life before, being successful. People
need opportunities to work so others in the street can see and say, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have to do
this, I don’t have to commit crimes to live. I can get education, I can get training, I can get a job. When
you don’t see anyone in your community who’s had a background, who’s had success, you eliminate
that as part of the process.”
Advocates of the law hope that giving people real second chances through the law will decrease
recidivism and, hopefully, reduce crime and violence throughout the community.
“In conjunction with a minimum wage increase, by banning the box, we will have an increased level of
resources to do stuff with in our community. When you have people employed and are able to reduce
poverty, it is actually an antiviolence program. We always say one of the best ways to keep people from
committing crime is to give them a job. It’s also one of the best ways to keep people from going back to
prison,” says DeAngelo Bester, Co-Executive Director at the Worker’s Center for Racial Justice.
“Hopefully the biggest thing it will do is help rebuild communities that have been ravaged by the War on
Drugs,” states Lowery, “The casualties of the war on drugs don’t just live in Columbia. They live in
Englewood. They live in North Lawndale. They live in east and west Garfield Park. So the impact of the
criminal record is exponential to the explosion of violence and poverty that we see in these
communities. Hopefully this process will open up some opportunities for people in these communities
to be employed, so that they can have legal, gainful employment, because we know that
employment—if you look at recidivism studies—is the most direct link to reducing recidivism. When we
reduce recidivism, we save tax dollars, dollars that can be used on education, on child welfare. We can
provide diversion opportunities for people at the point of contact where here you need education, you
need skills attainment.”
Johnson describes the impact in the following way, “Changing the face of what we perceive of someone
with a criminal record by getting to meet someone or look at them beyond that box on an application,
you’re humanizing the issue. These are people that are parents and siblings and members of the
community—our community—that all too often have been defined solely by that criminal background.”