“Ban the Box” mania sweeping across Michigan is a classic case of misplaced priorities. Instead of removing questions about prior felony convictions from employment application forms, our focus should be on preventing youngsters on the fringes of society from becoming criminals in the first place.
Not only has Detroit banned the requirement that applicants for city jobs check a box asking about their criminal history, the City Council wants to go one step further and forbid vendors doing business with the city to ask the question.
“We need people to be judged on their character, not their crime,” says Kelsey Ellis, a member of the Detroit Action Commonwealth, which backs the ban. The Macomb County branch of the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative (MPRI), says parolee job prospects have gotten tougher in a tight economy.
These claims, for the most part, are true. Thousands of ex-offenders are released from prison in Michigan each year, some for economic reasons – some from overcrowding. Since felony convictions are automatic barriers to employment, the reintegration of ex-cons into communities is difficult.
Although their debt to society was paid, many are woefully ill prepared for re-entry. Most ex-felons are either illiterate, or have less than marketable job skills and will have trouble finding a job under any circumstance. Without money, mentors, housing, skills and jobs to help them cope, they may comprise the next big crime wave. If the ex-con has an avenue into the workforce, the argument goes, he or she could become a taxpayer instead of a predator. Whether we enjoy safe neighborhoods depends on the choices they make during their first months back on the streets.
Good intentions notwithstanding, supporters of such efforts are intellectually misguided. Not much is known about the correlation between the “box” being banned and recidivism rates over the long term. It would not be out of disdain or compassion for felons as much as self-interest that argues for being cautious about helping them. The first job of government is to protect its citizens.
Coming to terms with crime must first deal with the fact that the children we fail to educate in our public schools are prime candidates for incarceration. The typical male prison inmate likely grew up in a single-parent, dysfunctional and poverty-stricken home, and has at least one close relative who has been imprisoned.
Parental supervision, discipline and a moral code of conduct among these disadvantaged children are weakened or nonexistent. Parental responsibility, though, is not something we can mandate. We can and must encourage positive behavior.
I know a young, single mother who shall remain nameless, who breaks the aforementioned mold. It is obvious to anyone who meets her son that he is bright, well mannered, well spoken and would make any parent proud. Like this mother has done, as early as possible we ought to communicate to our young that there are long-term consequences for breaking the law.
What is troubling about Ban the Box ordinances is that they put young people who are playing by the rules on an equal par with those who violated the law. In other words, giving ex-offenders equal access as non-offenders reveals our twisted priorities.
I’m not suggesting that we ignore criminals who are returning to our communities. We do so at our peril. But we have to be smart and recognize that giving offenders hope and a “second chance” discriminates against kids who play by the rules.
The overriding operational principle should be “first do no harm’ to the youngsters who stay on the preferred path to success and opportunity. These kids need to know there are rewards for good behavior, including being first in line for the available jobs.