Criminal record not death sentence for employment

Earlier this week, New York passed “ban the box” legislation, which removes a checkbox on job applications requiring candidates to disclose their criminal background. This legislation plays a key role in equitable employment opportunities. By merely having applicants check a box on a form, employers are misunderstanding the nature of crime in a way that unfairly disadvantages people.

The first problem with simple check boxes is that many crimes are crimes of necessity. There is much context involved in crimes, many of which are related to socioeconomic status. If a person’s family is destitute and selling drugs is the only way for them to put food on the table, he or she should not be permanently out of a job.

Even though the person did break the law, they did so largely due to poverty. Putting them in a position that permanently excludes them from the economy is the exact opposite of a meaningful solution. It creates the cyclical poverty that condemns families to lives of hardship for generations.

This problem is exacerbated by the rising income inequality in the American economy. After the 2008 financial crisis, the recovery has taken the form of an upward redistribution of wealth for a variety of reasons.

As wealth is concentrated within a small number of people, the money that people do have simply has less purchasing power because the wealthiest contingent of society has a much higher price at which they will buy goods.

Further, wages have stagnated for about 15 years. With higher prices and less money for the working poor, the economy is not producing the kinds of jobs that allow people to sufficiently provide for themselves. This means more people are in positions where crimes are not only realistic but, well, necessary.

The second problem with check boxes is that they rest on two assumptions, both of which are intuitively false. The first assumption is that arrests are representative of who is committing crimes. The second assumption is that people who are convicted are always guilty and people who are not convicted of crimes are always innocent.

The binary nature of a checkbox requires these assumptions to be generally true. The racial and ethnic biases of law enforcement, trials, and sentencing are all well documented. This means that Black and Hispanic applicants will be more likely to actually have to check the box than a white person who has committed the same crimes.

This economic discrimination is unconstitutional but, more importantly, simply wrong. A job grants someone access to resources, and it allows someone to participate in the economy. That right should always be independent of immutable characteristics like race or bad luck like the struggling post-recession economy.

The Tartan applauds New York City for recognizing the issues with check boxes to indicate a criminal record on job applications and encourages other states to pursue similar measures in the future.