The economy’s booming and the job market is hot but a little square barrier is blocking people often desperate to find work — former prison inmates — according to those in a growing movement called “ban the box.”
The box they don’t like is on numerous job applications. Next to it, applications typically ask: “Do you have a criminal record?”
Checking “YES” is a sure bet for ex-cons to miss out on getting a good job, said UAW pipefitter Percy Johnson, a volunteer with union programs to train and hire former inmates. Johnson, 60, of Troy said he’s convinced any questions about criminal records should be wiped off most applications for jobs, as well as those for apartment leases.
“For four years, I’ve been working on our job fairs and I know this is a big obstacle to an awful lot of these returning citizens. They just need a chance to show what they can do,” Johnson said. He spoke on Wednesday night in Pontiac at a rally of activists seeking to “ban the box,” Johnson said.
Active in several states, the effort gained momentum in Michigan in September when then Gov. Rick Snyder banned the “felony checkoff box” from state job applications. The box also was stricken from applications handled in Lansing for statewide occupational and construction trade licenses.
In an executive order, Snyder said the state’s job recruiters would still be able to consider an applicant’s criminal history during the hiring process but not as part of the initial screening — that is, not before ex-inmates “have the opportunity to show their qualifications,” Snyder said. His order was not binding, however, on the Michigan Attorney General’s Office nor on Secretary of State jobs.
Last week, the movement gained more attention when state Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit, introduced a “Ban the Box” bill in the state House.
House Bill 4326 would step into the hiring process of most Michigan employers by placing the following wording into state law: “The employer shall not inquire about a criminal conviction until after a conditional offer of employment is presented.” And then, only after learning of a job applicant’s criminal past could a job offer be revoked, and only for what the proposed law calls “reasonable factors.”
Johnson’s legislative policy director Ed Martell “has a criminal background — something that happened 15 years ago,” she said, adding: “And guess what? He recently finished law school.” Her “Ban the Box” bill would not hinder an employer from turning away “the killers, the people who really aren’t suitable” for a given job, Johnson said.
Martell, convicted of a nonviolent drug felony in 2005, planned to attend Wednesday night’s event in Pontiac, he said.
Aimed at former prison inmates as well as activists — and titled “I’m home, now what?” — the rally is scheduled for 5-8 p.m. at Your Emerging Space, the upper level of 7 N. Saginaw St., said co-organizer Julia Galliker of Birmingham.
Members of the nonprofit group, Michigan Liberation, that Galliker heads in Oakland County, believe now is the time for enacting long-awaited reforms to Michigan’s criminal-justice system, she said. In previous sessions of the state Legislature, bills to ban private employers from including a criminal history box on job applications failed to pass.
Yet, some advocates for hiring ex-inmates support keeping the box.
“Keep the box, don’t ban the box, (although) employers should want to know why people went to prison, what challenges they face in their personal lives, what interventions have worked and how they can help,” said Gary Wozniak, in a Free Press guest editorial last year. Wozniak founded and heads Detroit’s developing urban farm called Recovery Park, which has pledged to hire and train ex-felons.
Bryan Jones of Detroit said “the box” blocked him during his first try at finding a job soon after he was released from prison 10 months ago. Jones served 31 years and four months for second-degree murder after planning a robbery in which an accomplice killed their victim, he said.
When Jones filled out an application last year to be a driver, “the box was on there, so I disclosed (his background), and then I got a call a few days later and they said they were going in a different direction,” he said.
“But I got lucky,” said Jones, 52, from his office at the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, where he already has a title: administration and patron services manager. Jones got that job because of a stellar recommendation he gained from working as a tutor in entrepreneurship classes while “on the inside,” at the Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox Township, he said.
Jones’ boss at the nonprofit music society based in Detroit, President Steve Wogaman, said he agrees with those who’d ban the box.
“The problem I have with the box is you tend not to meet the person,” Wogaman said.
After Wednesday night’s meeting, Percy Johnson said “we feel that we had some key people here who are going to stay with this.” Among the attendees was Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman.
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