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Pledging To Build A Fair(er) America

The White House's new Fair Chance initiative hopes to help formerly incarcerated people access higher education.

CREDIT: Pexels.

Growing up in America, it’s hard to count how many times I’ve been told by my parents, my teachers, and even cartoons and ads on television, that if I work hard, and I dream big, I’ll eventually make it. I will eventually achieve the American Dream. Unfortunately, hard work and dreams are only a small piece of the puzzle: without a spotless criminal record, my chances at achieving the American Dream are slim.

In 2015, President Obama called upon American businesses and universities to reconsider stringent hiring and admissions processes that work to bar individuals with criminal records from applying or from being considered for open positions. Less than a year after his remarks, 25 institutions of higher education around the nation publicly signed onto the White House’s Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge.

The Fair Chance pledge allows businesses and universities to declare their commitment to helping formerly incarcerated individuals readjust to their new lives. By signing the pledge, the universities promise to help minimize the obstacles that formerly incarcerated individuals face, to find ways to support these individuals through local community efforts, and to be an example for their peer-institutions.

Although specific policy recommendations are absent from the pledge, the act of signing onto it demonstrates an overarching commitment by the universities, its students, and its faculty to raise awareness of these barriers. Additionally, the vagueness of the pledge allows for individual universities to implement and expand programs tailored specifically to their campus needs. When asked about the impact the pledge would have on the admissions process, Constance Relihan, Auburn University’s associate provost of undergraduate studies replied that while no applicant has ever been denied from admission on the basis of their criminal record, “the mere presence of the question may deter qualified students from applying.” In an effort to prevent that from happening, Relihan explains that “moving forward, [Auburn University] has revised the application to explicitly state that a positive answer does not automatically preclude admission.”

Other schools on the list like Boston University and San Francisco State University signed the pledge in order to highlight their existing prison education programs. For example, the Boston University Prison Education Program began offering college courses to incarcerated individuals in 1972 and the program has since developed to grant students who have completed the course with a Boston University Bachelor’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. Similarly, the Project Rebound program at San Francisco State University works specifically to provide admissions opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals and provides additional financial support during their time at the university. The school recently announced an expansion of the program to include seven other California state universities.

These schools and many more on the list have taken significant steps and effort to reduce educational barriers to a significant portion of the population.

America incarcerates the largest proportion of its population of any country in the world, with more than 2.3 million residents locked up in prisons and detention centers across the nation. While that number only represents the number of individuals currently in the system, almost one-third of all American adults have a criminal record of some sort. Unfortunately, disclosure of these records often disqualifies an individual from being hired or admitted into certain companies and universities.

In 2014, the Center for American Progress published a report chronicling the types of barriers that individuals with criminal records face when seeking employment, housing, public assistance, and education and training. Almost all businesses and universities requires applicants to fill out a box on the application that asks about their criminal history. Unfortunately, large communities of returning citizens recently released from prison are forced to face a life in which checking the box on an application immediately places them at a disadvantage, and, in many cases, automatically disqualifies them from moving forward in the process. Additionally, many of those finish their prison terms without high school degrees and without GEDs. Thus, not only does the presence of a criminal record place them at a disadvantage for employment, but their low levels of education as a result of time spent in jail also hinders their ability to re-enter their communities.

The effects of these barriers are particularly devastating for black and Hispanic communities in America. Black men and women face disproportionately high rates of incarceration and conviction and unfortunately, the gaps between the incarceration rates in black communities and those in white communities are steadily increasing each year. According to the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Fact Sheet (which analyzes Hispanic incarceration rates, but not Latino ones) black and Hispanic individuals made up nearly 58 percent of all incarcerated individuals in 2008. These statistics reflect only a small piece of the stark realities that face young members of black and Hispanic communities every day.

The startling differences between incarceration rates of black and Hispanic communities and of white communities casts a dark shadow over America’s judiciary and criminal justice systems. Inequalities in incarceration rates reflect, reproduce, and perpetuate existing inequalities between communities of color and white communities in America. With black students earning just 10 percent of all bachelor’s degrees granted in 2010 and Hispanic students earning just nine percent, the effects of incarceration on these individuals spill over and play a significant role in effectively trapping the communities into cycles of educational inequality. Black and Hispanic individuals returning from prison expect to and are expected to participate and contribute to their communities, but are disqualified from doing so because of their criminal record.

Young people have a particularly large stake in participating in these nation-wide conversations about criminal justice reform. Many returning individuals were convicted while they were well under the age of 30 and so their readjustment into society demonstrates a type of re-entry into the community of Millennials. These recently released individuals share the same broad concerns that young people have: concerns about higher education, employment, drug reform, gun reform, and immigration, to name a few. To work with formerly incarcerated individuals on reducing the barriers they face in re-entering their communities is to work to reform the very policies that shape the Millennial experience. Young people across campuses in America should push their universities and institutions of higher education to join the conversation and commit to ensuring a more inclusive and understanding community.

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