Excerpted from The Breeze By Mitchell Sasser

JMU’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a national grassroots organization that recognizes the threat posed by the war on drugs, hosted “Ban the Box in Virginia Higher Education” April 16. This event explored why removing the box from hiring applications that asks if an individual has a criminal record is necessary, citing the fact that it’s a barrier to both reentry in the workplace and decreases educational access for those who need it the most.

President of SSDP and sophomore computer science major Jack Vandemeulebroecke attended the event. He supports banning the box, especially for drug offenses since they affect college-aged students.

“I know lots of people with drug convictions that need access to higher education,” Vandemeulebroecke said. “Grassroots wise, it’s so important for these kinds of conversations to take place and for people to get involved.”

There were four individuals on the panel: Executive Director of From Prison Cells to PHDS Stanley Andrisse, District 63 Del. Lashrecse Aird, JMU Dean of Admissions Michael Walsh and Chair of Valley Justice Coalition Daniel Barrows. Hannah Procell, an Advocacy Fellow of SSDP, moderated the event.

All four panelists shared why they felt criminal record questions on applications was both discriminatory and unsuccessful. Procell believes that the benefits of higher education for all increase public safety.

“SSDP has emerged out of an era of the war on drugs and the ramping up of mass incarceration,” Procell said. “And it has had so many collateral consequences, not only in the lives of individuals that are finding themselves within the criminal justice system but in the communities that are being torn apart and the families that are being torn apart because of over incarceration. In the world that we live in, there is no end to an issue that could use your voice being added to it.”

Approximately 70% of college applications ask for information about prior convictions. In a country where 71 million people have a criminal history, many are denied from higher education based on their past behavior.

Andrisse was in a similar situation. In 2006, he was 22 years old and faced a courtroom for a 20-year sentence for his third drug conviction. Now, he’s an assistant professor at Howard University College of Medicine. While he had a support system and personal drive to make sure he didn’t return to his past behavior, he realizes that others in similar situations aren’t so lucky. His message to students:

“Take action, and your voice matters,” Andrisse said. “More than they probably are aware, their voice matters in this. Your voice is important in this conversation.”

Educational programming reduces recidivism — a person’s relapse into criminal behavior — by 40%. It also provides opportunities for employment and positive support that decrease the likelihood of future crimes. Barrows sees banning the box as an opportunity for individuals to pursue careers without fear of discrimination.

“We need to make sure we are designing our criminal justice policies, both within the criminal justice system and in reentry, regarding these boxes,” Barrows said. “To make sure we are supporting people to make positive changes and be able to move forward and be part of society rather than holding them back and setting barriers.”

Unlock Higher Ed Coalition is a broad group of stakeholders interested in policy solutions to increase educational access for individuals with criminal convictions. The Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, or FIRST STEP Act, was recently passed by Congress with strong bipartisan support. It removed impediments to successful reentry and restored access to educational opportunities.

The average cost of incarcerating an individual in the U.S. annually is roughly $30,000. The cost of one year of college while in prison is only $5,000. Completing education provides the opportunity for incarcerated students to find employment, become taxpayers and give back to their communities.

The recidivism rate drops from 43% to 5.6% when individuals obtain a bachelor’s degree. Consequently, more jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school. Lifting barriers to completing education for incarcerated students increases their employment rate.

It could potentially reduce poverty too. When parents attain postsecondary education, the likelihood that their children will also attend college increases.

The four panelists each came from different backgrounds but united on this common issue of banning the box. Lashrecse believes that the diversity of the panel contributed to the discussion and what the students took away from the event.

“It shows that this issue — it doesn’t matter the color of your skin, it doesn’t matter your age, it doesn’t matter where you are in the commonwealth or rather in the country, this is something that is impacting everyone,” Lashrecse said.

Many see the criminal history questions in college admissions as ineffective. Neither criminal background checks nor pre-admission screening questions have been proven to accurately predict whether students are likely to commit a crime on college campuses.

“The criminal justice system has grown to such an extent that it reaches so many people,” Barrows said. “Virtually everybody I talk to has a family member, has a friend, has a coworker who has been struggling with their criminal background. It shows us the challenge that we face but also gives us hope for making change.”