Bound to the Box

After being released from prison some 20 years ago, Kevin Springs still can’t find a job. “I literally had to fight to regain some semblance of humanity where I could move forward with my life,” he said.

Kevin Springs (Courtesy of Kevin Springs)
Kevin Springs, founder of Spring4Ward. (Courtesy of Kevin Springs)

Believing that education would be the way forward, Springs went back to school. He went on to earn two technical degrees and eventually pursue a bachelor’s degree in social work from FIU.

But just as he embarked on his senior year, he was pulled into the dean’s office.

Due to Kevin’s past conviction history, the school was having trouble finding a site for him to complete his field work practicum — a course required for graduation.

“I didn’t know what to do. Here I am thinking I’m on this trajectory that’s going to make me human again and there was this huge road block,” he recalled.

His friend, a teacher at a public elementary school in Homestead, suggested he try volunteering. Two children in her fourth grade class recently lost their parents to gun violence. Noticing that they had turned inward and were gravitating farther and farther from her reach after the incident, she asked Kevin to come and mentor them. Excited by the opportunity to share some of his own experiences with these children who clearly needed an empathetic ear, Kevin applied to volunteer at the school.

“I wanted to share my experiences so that they don’t fall into the same situations [as me] due to no fault of their own,” he remembers.  

A few days later he was notified that he did not qualify because of his nonviolent conviction history. Frustrated by this experience and the many others before it, Kevin decided to start his own organization, Spring4Ward.

“There’s a huge stigma against those who have been incarcerated,” Springs said. “I’m starting a program to give a place to people who have been released […], so that when they walk out of that gate they don’t wonder ‘what the hell am I going to do now?’”

Moving forward

As former convicts begin the process of rehabilitation, they routinely face barriers to employment. Studies have shown that lack of employment directly correlates with repeated criminal activity.

Broke and with no support system, they turn back to crime just to survive.

 Edduard Prince
Edduard Prince knows firsthand how hard life can be after a conviction. (Courtesy of Edduard Prince)

This was the case with Edduard Prince, an Overtown resident who has been incarcerated twice both times for nonviolent crimes. After his first offense, without stable employment, Prince returned to crime for economic security. “You subject yourself to so much pain when you have a criminal background. You put so much energy into looking for a job and it’s the same answer. They just shut the door on you,” he said. “If you make a mistake and you pay for the mistake, then you’re supposed to be allowed to move forward, but if people are judging you for that then you can never move forward.”

Three years ago, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published a guideline outlining best practices in the consideration of criminal records on employment decisions.

Among other recommendations, the EEOC endorsed removing the conviction question from initial job applications. This was sparked by a campaign entitled Ban the Box, referring to the checkbox on applications that question one’s criminal past. This would give former convicts a chance to potentially meet an employer before they are questioned about their incarceration history. After making it through initial interviews, employers may still ask prospective employees to undergo background checks, however.

So can one little checkmark really make all that much of a difference?

It did in Durham, North Carolina. After three years of the policy’s adoption, the percentage of city employees with a criminal record increased from 2 to 15 percent, according to a study by the Southern Coalition for Criminal Justice.

It did in Hawaii, as well. Professors at FIU recently published a study that empirically evaluates ban the box legislation on repeat offenses. The seminal study, published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice last March, demonstrated a 57% reduction in recidivism in Honolulu County after the implementation of Hawaii’s ban the box law.

Courtesy of miss_millions/Flickr Creative Commons
Courtesy of miss_millions/Flickr Creative Commons


Bridging racial disparities

“Ban the box legislation would naturally have a greater effect on helping minorities find work because they tend to have a higher arrest rate and incarceration rate,”  FIU professor Dr. Lisa Stolzenberg who co-authored the study wrote in an e-mail.

Minorities overwhelmingly populate our nation’s prisons. Despite being just 13% of the U.S. population, those who self-identify as black make up 40% of the prison population. Hispanics make up just 16% of the U.S. population, but have a 19% incarceration rate.

Source: Prison Policy Initiative

Now consider this — white, non-hispanics comprise 64% of the U.S. population — but represent 39% of the incarcerated population, nearly the same percentage as blacks despite making up almost 6 times more of the national population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative

Last year, President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative released a plan to address the disparities plaguing minorities leading to gross gaps in racial and economic inequalities. The report suggested changes in hiring practices, including focusing on promoting successful reentry of former convicts into society, with initiatives such as “Ban the Box, which give applicants a fair chance and allows employers an opportunity to judge individual job candidates on their merits as they reenter the workplace.”

A turning tide

Law books (Courtesy of Paige_flickr Creative Commons)

In Florida, eight cities have passed legislation to remove the conviction history question from public job applications. With Tallahassee leading the pack by passing legislation in Jan. 2013, St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Pompano Beach, Orlando, Tampa, Clearwater, and the most recent addition in June of this year, Daytona Beach, have also adopted the policy.

“The tide is turning in the country around many issues surround ex-offenders,” said Rev. Bernice Powell Johnson, a leader with the nonprofit Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, or HOPE. She was a primary organizer in Tampa’s Ban the Box initiative.

“We were really happy when it got passed, we had worked hard for it, but we don’t think we’re at the end of the road. We’re still trying to get the city to go to the next step,” she said. 

That next step is compelling private businesses to follow suit. This has already proven to be more difficult Johnson admitted. “Businesses have a high duty to the public,” said Bill Herrle, executive director of the Florida branch of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “If a crime were to happen, then that employer is going to be fully liable. That’s one of the reasons why pre-employment background screenings are conducted.”

He added, “Employers have a very real responsibility to ensure that their workforce does not present any potential harm to the consumer.”

There are only seven states — Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island — that have enacted statewide legislation prohibiting both public and private businesses from asking conviction questions on initial job applications.

To date, “18 states, Washington D.C, and 100 cities and counties have adopted fair hiring policies,” according to a report published in January of this year by the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

Most other statewide or citywide policies have removed the question from job applications at public institutions, but leave private businesses to decide at their own discretion.

Yet, there’s some hope that Miami may not be missing from this list for too long. An ordinance eliminating all questions regarding criminal history from public employment applications in Miami-Dade County was submitted at a commissioner’s meeting on June 2, and is slated for a second reading on Wednesday, Sept. 16.

For Prince this would be a small step toward finally feeling free. “These things, they cripple the community — it traps us in the box,” he said. “We’re abused by that box.”