A working community is a safe community. Educated neighborhoods become healthy, sustainable, and create their own jobs; it is truly as simple as that. New Orleans is heading in the right direction with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s recent proposal that the city stop asking job applicants: “Have you been convicted of a felony?” The city is one of our biggest employers, and we applaud Landrieu for showing leadership on a campaign we call “Ban the Box.”
Everybody knows that checking the box and admitting to the conviction means an application goes in the trash before the job seeker even gets to meet the manager. Those who skip the question, or cover up a prior, are only trying to get a job. They hope that within just a few weeks, they’ll prove themselves and the boss will be able to overlook a prior. Sometimes it works out; sometimes they get fired anyway — but after earning at least a paycheck or two.
Studies show that checking the Box tends to eliminate you from the applicant pool. Studies also show that given an opportunity to sit down for an interview, the applicant’s chances of getting hired skyrocket. Employers can then hire the candidate who is the most motivated and ready to work.
People don’t go back to jail because they’re bored; they commit another crime because they can hear “No” only so many times, over so many weeks and months while the pressures of supporting themselves and their families pile up.
What most people call “collateral consequences” of a conviction are actually very direct. Nobody talks about these other punishments, however; not in plea negotiations and not at sentencing. A judge never acknowledges that he is sentencing someone to a life of unemployment or homelessness. Defense lawyers don’t tell a teenager that copping a plea will affect their future for decades to come.
We believe that not only should Louisiana pass a “Ban the Box” bill, it should also enact a “Truth In Sentencing” Act, so everyone in the courtroom knows that conviction means you will be disenfranchised as a voter and barred from many jobs and services.
It’s time for our leaders to recognize that punishments need an end date, because the sentence imposes a cost on all of us: We paralyze our economy and stunt intergenerational development.
All around the nation, formerly incarcerated people have been collectively sharing their stories, as we do here at Voice Of The Ex-Offender (VOTE). As a result, laws are being changed — something long overdue in a city that is ground zero in this business of criminalizing our community. States from California to Rhode Island have recently cast aside the Box.
Many of these reforms have been written by formerly incarcerated folks who are sharing their expertise on important issues. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t know, you better ask somebody.”
Everyone wants people to get their lives on track after being convicted. Too often, however, the general public doesn’t seem to understand why someone with a record can’t just get a job and take care of his or her family. People see homelessness and unemployment as the result, but don’t seem to see the obvious solutions.
Maybe it’s because we are asking the same old people for answers to the same old questions. Earlier this month voters in Flint, Mich., elected two people with criminal records, one of whom had spent 19 years in prison. The community called out for leadership from those who understand what is happening.
In the beginning of the year we joined together with Stand With Dignity to call on the Housing Authority of New Orleans [HANO] to ease its policy of barring entire families from public housing if one member has a criminal record. Between public housing policy and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an entire generation of New Orleanians has been given little or no hope of keeping the family unit together.
Our response to families in crisis cannot be police. Our response to unemployment, neglected schools, mental illness, and substance addiction cannot be police. Schools should not be using the court system to discipline students; they should hire a vice principal to focus on that challenge. We should not be building a bigger jail, we should be looking at comprehensive approaches to these problems, not to tasers, service revolvers and a cage.
New Orleans is one of the world’s truly great cities. I was born and raised here, but don’t just take my word for it; let the outsiders say it. They come here for vacations, conferences, and Super Bowls. They provide us with economic resources, but those resources need to be redirected. We can’t have (a) over 50% of our residents burdened with prior convictions, often for minor crimes; and we can’t (b) exclude those folks and their families from employment, education, and democracy.
An important first step is to stop branding people for life because they have a criminal record. Ultimately, we need to embrace everyone in this community as our neighbors. There’s a simple reason why: We will sink or swim together.
Norris Henderson is executive director of Voice of the Ex-Offender, which advocates for the rights of former inmates.