This week, it was announced that Duke University and Duke University Health System will no longer ask potential employees for information regarding prior criminal convictions in the initial part of the job application process. This policy change, commonly referred to as “banning the box,” is part of the “Ban the Box” project—created by the civil rights organization All of Us or None—organized around ending employment, housing and service discrimination against formerly incarcerated people. The namesake check box refers to the question “Have you been convicted by a court?” It commonly appears on applications for employment, housing, public benefits, insurance, loans and other crucial services. “Ban the Box” has become a growing nationwide movement and since its inception, the policy change has been adopted by 33 states and over 150 cities and counties; now 75 percent of the U.S. population currently lives in a jurisdiction that has banned the box. The purpose of the policy is to mandate that employers look at an applicant’s qualifications first and their conviction or arrest record afterward, to avoid letting stigmas and stereotypes cloud decisions made about what kind of service or employment they receive. 

The University’s decision follows a demand listed by Duke People’s State of the University last Spring in their inaugural protest. The influence of undergraduate activists was confirmed by vice president for administration Kyle Cavanaugh when he noted that the administration met with subgroups of students about the policy and why it’s important that the university takes action on it. Although Cavanaugh states that this change is in line with the direction in which Duke has been moving on the issue as the University had “transitioned to the required [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] guidelines several years ago” so that the change wouldn’t “be a huge lift,” this is undoubtedly evidence that direct action taken by students is correlated with the university expediting meaningful change. And, this instance is far from the first case of grassroots mobilization of students for change: cases including the creation of the African-American Studies program after the 1969 Allen Building takeover, divestment from apartheid during the 1980s, the push for Asian-American Studies since 2002 that culminated in an Asian-American Studies program in 2018 were all lead in part by student advocates.

With news of this victory spreading, some members of the Duke community might be asking “So what?” Reactions of those unfamiliar to this movement might suggest that formerly incarcerated populations deserve the extra scrutiny because of their criminal record. Others might worry that this second chance policy is misplaced because formerly incarcerated people are “dangerous.” However, all of these concerns are misplaced and can easily be assuaged with some background and statistics.

Assumptions that individuals who have been through the criminal-legal system are violent and a threat lack the historical and contemporary political context—most notably, the racialized War on Drugs—that drove mass incarceration, which drastically transformed the carceral landscape. Policies of broken window policing and mandatory minimum sentencing has led to the U.S. prison population exploding at 2.2 million, with a majority of inmates serving time for nonviolent, low-level offenses. The devastating impacts of mass incarceration can’t be discussed without recognizing which populations are disproportionately surveilled and preconceived as dangerous. Black and brown low-income populations are known to be disproportionately policed and incarcerated and therefore face the brunt of harsh economic consequences upon release.

Having that mark of incarceration makes it far more difficult to find employment or get access to services, which facilitates high recidivism rates. A study in 2005 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that three years after release, more than 66 percent of released prisoners were rearrested, and that five years after release, more than 75 percent of released prisoners were re-arrested. Given the aforementioned racialized and classed context of the formerly incarcerated, such realities follow them to the job market; banning the box is part of a multi-pronged strategy to help rectify such an environment.

Ultimately, while the core issue facing us is not the box itself, but rather the racist prison industrial complex, this change is one part of a blueprint toward justice. Further steps to take include expanding the policy change into the realm of student admissions, structuring a targeted hiring procedure that seeks to intentionally employ those who have been disenfranchised by their arrest records and looking into other labor-related demands made by People’s State of the University. Additionally, broader expansion of the state expungement procedure. In North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper has already begun this by signing into law a standardized expungement process in the understanding that criminal justice “should end at restoration.” While there is still much work to be done to untangle the complex web of state violence, racial discrimination and mass incarceration, this step taken by Duke is not only one that recognizes these harsh realities and seeks to ameliorate them, but further evidence that students can truly be the change they want to see on campus.