March 21, 2016

EDITORIAL: Banning the Box — Cornell as a Fair Chance Employer

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The Student Assembly urged the University on Thursday to join the national “Ban the Box” movement by removing job application questions asking applicants if they have a criminal record. In passing this resolution, the S.A. rightly acknowledges the need for fair chance hiring practices and the crucial role Cornell plays in the community. As an educational institution and an important community member, Cornell University is obligated to be a fair chance employer.

In New York state, 42 percent of 24,605 ex-offenders were taken back into custody three years after their release, according to the N.Y. Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Additionally, 32 percent violated terms of their parole and 9 percent were convicted of a new felony. Recidivism remains an important community issue, and employment plays a key role in reducing it, according to a September report by the Criminal Justice and Alternatives to Incarceration Board.

The “box” — which refers to the check box applicants fill if they have a criminal record — allows the stigma of a criminal history to restrict the access to work for people with convictions. This contributes to high levels of unemployment for ex-offenders and undermines their ability to be self-sufficient, contributing to recidivism. Improving access to gainful employment following release from prison is a meaningful step towards reducing recidivism and encouraging ex-offenders to become productive members of society. Those convicted of crimes serve a prison sentence in punishment for their actions. This punishment stops with the end of a jail sentence, and like all other members of society, ex-offenders deserve a fair chance to be hired.

Some students have asked whether banning the box will jeopardize on-campus safety, but doing so would still allow the University to conduct a background check after extending a conditional offer of employment. Additionally, in Tompkins County, the majority of people in jail are charged with misdemeanor offenses and spend an average of 35 days in jail, according to the report by Criminal Justice and Alternatives to Incarceration Board. Nearly all of the 794 inmates (sentenced and unsentenced) in Tompkins County jail in 2014 were under the age of 33. For these young ex-offenders facing misdemeanor charges, the obstacles towards gaining employment is often disproportionate to the offenses they committed. Cornell, the largest employer in Tompkins County, has a responsibility to act fairly and appropriately in its hiring practices.

Through initiatives like the 17-year old Cornell Prison Education Program, Cornell has a strong history of supporting the burgeoning incarcerated population and promoting successful re-entry. The University should further work towards these aims by joining over 100 cities, including the City of Ithaca, and 21 states in banning the box.