New York Times Editorial Board: College Applications and Criminal Records

Ban-the-BoxThe article below provides further evidence that college criminal record screening procedures do not accurately predict future criminal activity and primarily serve as a barrier to collegiate success.

Americans who have criminal histories are often stymied when they encounter college entry applications that ask if they have ever been convicted of crimes. The process, which often brings greater scrutiny to people who answer “yes,” is driving away large numbers of people who present no danger to campus safety and are capable of succeeding academically.

Similar problems have faced people with records when they look for jobs, but progress on that front could be a model for reforming college admissions. Fourteen states and about 100 local governments have worked to minimize job discrimination by barring public — and, in many cases, private — employers from asking about criminal convictions until later in the application process, when the person has had a chance to prove his or her worthiness for the job.

Heightened concern on campuses about criminal records can be traced in part to the 1986 murder of Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old who was killed in her dormitory at Lehigh University. The killer did not have a criminal conviction record. Congress responded by passing the Clery Act in 1990, requiring schools to publicly report violence on campus.

The practice of collecting criminal history information on applications became common a decade ago, after questions about an applicant’s criminal convictions were added in 2006 to the Common Application, now used by nearly 500 colleges.

Many schools reacted by taking into account minor offenses like alcohol convictions by applicants, who are often asked to produce official rap sheets. These records can contain inaccurate information and show juvenile offenses that have been sealed by the courts — which means they should never be viewed publicly or used in such a process. Schools often fail to train their staff members in how to weigh criminal history information. As a result, people who check “yes” on the felony box can find themselves trapped in a Kafkaesque world where they are peppered with Inquisition-style questions and repeatedly asked to find documents that do not exist or are impossible to provide.

It is no surprise that many students would become discouraged.

A new study by the Center for Community Alternatives, a nonprofit group that focuses on alternatives to incarceration, suggests that many more people with convictions actually give up than complete the applications process. The study looks at the process at 60 of the 64 campuses of the State University of New York. It found that nearly two-thirds of applicants who checked “yes” in the felony box never completed the applications process.

By contrast, the 24 campuses of the City University of New York do not ask applicants about their criminal histories. Administrators insist that this has not posed a safety problem.

The study notes that “the power of label and stigma, which shapes the life experiences of people with criminal history records in 21st-century America, discourages many from trying to push open doors that seem locked tight.” It calls on the State University of New York and all colleges to exclude the criminal history question from applications and end the use of that information in admissions decisions.

Original Source:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/opinion/sunday/college-applications-and-criminal-records.html?smid=fb-share

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