Campus & community, Campus news

Banning the box, opening a door for job seekers with records

Applicants for staff jobs at UC Berkeley will no longer be asked, at the start of process, to disclose past felony or misdemeanor convictions. A group of formerly incarcerated students played a key role in working with HR to create the new policy.

Clarence Ford and Rodrigo
Underground Scholars Clarence Ford and Rodrigo "Froggy" Vazquez (UC Berkeley photo by Cathy Cockrell)

UC Berkeley job applicants who have prior conviction histories will find it easier to be considered on the merits of their knowledge and experience, under a policy that went into effect May 1. Aspiring staff employees will no longer be asked, at the start of the application process, to disclose felony or misdemeanor convictions that resulted in imprisonment, probation or fine.

Clarence Ford and Rodrigo "Froggy" Vazquez

Underground Scholars Clarence Ford and Rodrigo “Froggy” Vazquez (UC Berkeley photo by Cathy Cockrell)

The campus’s decision to “ban the box” – the prior-conviction question on the job-application form – reflects an institutional commitment to a “fair and equitable hiring process,” Jeannine Raymond, assistant vice chancellor for human resources, explained in a May 3 email message announcing the change.

“After a careful review of the process,” she wrote, “we have determined that placing this question at the beginning of the application is acting as a deterrent to people who may be well-qualified to become a Berkeley employee, and would like to apply, knowing that they will be fairly considered.”

Under the new policy, background checks will be conducted for staff positions deemed to be critical or sensitive, but only after a candidate’s qualifications have been reviewed and the person has been selected as a finalist for the position.

Student advocacy

The Underground Scholars Initiative – an organization of Berkeley students who have been personally impacted by the criminal-justice system – played a key role in advocating for revisions to the campus job-application process.

Graduation ceremony, housing support

Underground Scholars will hold a graduation ceremony from 2 to 4 p.m., Sunday, May 15, at Anna Head Alumnae Hall. It is believed to be the first commencement for formerly incarcerated students at a four-year college or university in the U.S.

The organization aims to raise $30,000 to provide transitional housing support for graduating USI students. (Its members, about half of whom are parents, do not qualify for public low-income housing because of their conviction records.)

To help kick off the campaign, the UC Police Department is providing $4,000. “I’m excited and honored,” says UCPD chief Margo Bennett, “to be part of a program to help people get their lives back on track.”

Donating to Underground Scholars

Supporters may make a donation to Underground Scholars here.

To make a tax-deductible donation, use the Equity and Inclusion website. Write “Berkeley Underground Scholars” in the “Special Instructions, designations…” section of the donation form, to ensure that the donation is properly directed.

The prior-convictions question – encountered even before applicants have a chance to list their skills and qualifications – discourages many individuals (including some whose convictions are decades old) from applying for staff openings on the campus, says Rodrigo “Froggy” Vazquez, a political-science major with the Underground Scholars group.

For a formerly incarcerated person “it’s a red flag: ‘stay away, this job is not for you,'” he says. “We feel it’s a form of discrimination, having that box there.”

While doing jail time in his teens, “I would sit up at nighttime with cellmates” imagining life post-release, recalls American studies major Clarence Ford, a senior set to begin graduate studies in public policy this fall. “The main concern and priority was finding a job. But the box would come up in our conversations. People were already deterred from applying.”

Now, says Ford, “the conversation will switch up.” As word gets out that the box has been removed, those inside jails and prisons “will be more hopeful.”

Ford and Vazquez – who met as community organizers before coming to Berkeley – shared such experiences in a series of meetings, beginning last October, between formerly incarcerated students and Human Resources staff.

Jeannine Raymond,

Jeannine Raymond, assistant vice chancellor for human resources

“It’s great that the university can support the students in this way, creating a true win-win for everyone,” Raymond says of the collaborative process and resulting policy. “We’ll look back on this partnership as a historic turning point in inclusion that started here at Berkeley because of the students.”

Domino effect

Underground Scholars regards higher education as a key to reducing recidivism, but it’s also committed to challenging an array of policies – on employment, housing, voting rights and more – that “keep our population from moving forward,” Vazquez says. Having successfully lobbied to change the campus’s job-application process, he adds, “our idea is to create a domino effect” – encouraging other institutions, starting with other UC campuses, to ban the box as well.

California’s ban-the-box law, affecting public agencies (though not UC), took effect in 2014. Ford worked with the Safe Return Team, in Richmond, California, to pass that city’s 2013 ordinance. So far, more than 100 U.S. cities, counties and states have adopted ban-the-box protections. On Friday the Obama administration proposed banning the box for tens of thousands of federal jobs.

Vazquez is a member of the civil-rights organization All of Us or None, which has led the “ban the box” movement and advised Underground Scholars as they worked with HR to revise the staff hiring process.

UC Berkeley’s new policy, he says, “is going to open up job opportunities” for people with prior records. “Versus, ‘Oh man, there’s that box.'”

Related information:

Underground Scholars reverse school-to-prison pipeline (Berkeley News article, 2015)