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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, September 05, 2017 1:00 am

Editorial

Boxed in: Could new law lessen ex-convicts' job chances?

Indiana's new ban-the-ban-the-box law is another of the many ways state government is taking away the power of individual communities to make their own decisions about a range of issues.

Many states and hundreds of communities nationwide have enacted laws that prevent public employers – or, in some cases, private ones – from asking job applicants about their criminal history on an initial application form. Called “ban the box,” such measures are aimed at giving ex-cons a second chance. The idea is not to allow those convicted of a crime to hide their past. It's to allow them to at least get a chance to compete for a job without having their résumés tossed because they checked “the box.”

The bill Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law this spring forbids any community from enacting such a measure. Indiana has the questionable distinction of being the first state with such a prohibition.

But Holcomb also announced he would ban the box for hiring by state agencies. That mixed message underscores how difficult the issue can be, even for those truly concerned about the plight of those who struggle to overcome a criminal past.

Many private and public employers may be relieved not to have to wrestle with the issue. As The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly reported recently, businesses she contacted here and even Mayor Tom Henry don't want to discuss the matter.

One problem is that well-intended ban-the-box laws have apparently fallen victim to the law of unintended consequences elsewhere – the use of racial profiling to screen applicants, instead. 

Banning the box rules may “create a dynamic where disproportionately incarcerated minority groups are discriminated against,” said Anthony Hudson, executive director of Blue Jacket, a non-profit agency that helps the disadvantaged become employed. About 60 percent of Blue Jacket's clients are ex-offenders, though the organization also helps immigrants, those with disabilities, young people and the homeless find jobs.

Graduates of Blue Jacket's training and placement program tend to favor the ban-the-box approach, Hudson said. “They're worried about the prejudgment for committing a crime,” Hudson said. “ 'It takes the albatross off my back,' they say. 'Let me talk to you in person.' ”

Blue Jacket has not taken a position on whether the boxes are appropriate. The agency's philosophy is that an applicant should share everything with the employers it has an arrangement to work with up front.

“We don't think it should be part of the process to hide someone's criminal background or drug history” at any point, Hudson said. “We have employers willing to give them second chances,” he said, noting that the program has had 2,122 graduates since it started in 2005, and “90 percent or more had jobs within three months of graduating.”

The need is undeniable. According to the National Employment Law Project, one out of every four adult Americans has a record of criminal arrest or conviction. Last year, 846 convicted criminals from Allen County who completed prison sentences were required to return here, according to the Indiana Department of Correction. With the opioid epidemic raging, more and more Hoosiers are acquiring drug-crime records.

The ban-the-box concept will continue to be debated. Indianapolis, whose anti-box law was overriden by the state measure, is considering a rule that would require city contractors to eliminate the box before doing business with the city. But efforts by organizations such as Blue Jacket, commitments by private companies and community leaders finding the courage to address the problem may offer more hope. The need to give ex-offenders a second chance is one that can't be solely addressed by laws.