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Should colleges "ban the box" when it comes to students' criminal records?

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If you've ever filled out a job application, I'm sure you've come across the question asking whether you've ever been convicted of a criminal offense.

For someone who was formerly incarcerated, having to check "yes" can make it nearly impossible to find a job or a place to live.

Last November, President Barack Obama called for federal employers to "ban the box" on employment applications. The "box" is the question that asks about an applicant's criminal history.

The goal: To make it easier for people in prison to start fresh after they're released.

Now the "ban the box" campaign is gaining ground at colleges and universitiesCampus officials say the question keeps everyone on campus safe. But opponents call the question an undue barrier that harms certain groups of students.

Some institutions, like Eastern Michigan University, routinely ask criminal-background questions on the admission application:

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Credit Eastern Michigan University
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Criminal-background question from EMU's undergrad admissions application

But more than 600 colleges and universities, including University of Michigan, ask simply because they use The Common App to streamline the admissions process. The Common App asks:

Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or other crime? Note that you are not required to answer “yes” to this question, or provide an explanation, if the criminal adjudication or conviction has been expunged, sealed, annulled, pardoned, destroyed, erased, impounded, or otherwise required by law or ordered by a court to be confidential.

And some states, like Massachusetts, have laws that require institutions to ask the question.

However, research shows once schools have information from the background checks, many don’t seem to know how to evaluate it. A Center for Community Alternatives study, "Reconsidered," examined 273 institutions and found that 66% collect information about criminal history, but only 40% train staff to interpret the data, and over 50% have no written policy regarding the admission of applicants with a criminal history.

Institutions understandably want to – and should – create a safe environment for everyone. But some problems arise with the use of criminal background checks.

One in four adults in America has a criminal record. And most of them currently pose no threat to public safety and will not go on to commit crimes in the future. At the same time, some individuals who commit violent crimes – like the Uber driver in Kalamazoo who went on a shooting spree that left six people dead – have no prior criminal record that would show up on a background check.

There are also racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Black people are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white people, and Latinos at nearly twice the rate. So black students are not only more likely to end up in prison, but are more likely to confront the box once they are released and attempt to break that cycle by going to college.

Barmak Nassirian is director of policy analysis with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. He told The Atlantic:

This question doesn’t belong on the college-admissions form any more than questions about the weather belong there. These are not facts that in any way relate to the matter at hand which is to decide if someone is qualified to come learn something. We know that communities of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by run-ins with the law. This mindless adoption of these mechanical so-called ‘safety checks’ does have the predictable downside of disproportionately affecting the students who need it the most. This amounts to extrajudicial punishment on someone who has already served a punishment for a crime.

Educators want to welcome and serve qualified students, while maintaining a safe learning environment. But does it have to come at the cost of stigmatizing and dismissing those who have a criminal record?

What do you think about "banning the box?"

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