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Beyond the box

As volunteer advocates at the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF), a nonprofit that works with individuals toward goals of financial independence, we often work alongside justice-involved community members (those who have come into contact with any part of the criminal justice system) who routinely confront a society that continues to punish them long after they leave detention in the criminal-legal system. As they begin the slow work of rebuilding their lives and rejoining their respective communities, they must navigate limited housing options, employers who refuse to hire them, bureaucratic and nightmarish expungement processes and a public conditioned to fear and disregard them. One consistent barrier is the “Box”—a question on the initial employment application asking if the applicant has ever been convicted of a crime. Resulting in the disproportionate rejection of African-American and Latinx job applicants, this Box represents a prejudice ingrained in so many employers against the formerly incarcerated. It is a codification of denied opportunity to those seeking economic stability for themselves and their families. We witnessed countless individuals confront the disappointment, discouragement and rejection generated by the Box, and being forced to start over again. More often than not, we witnessed this rejection when CEF members applied to jobs at Duke University and its Health System.

On Sept. 25th, in a major breakthrough long pushed-for by the formerly incarcerated, community groups, student activists with People’s State of the University, and Duke Student Government, Duke announced that it would “ban” the Box. In other words, Duke University and Duke Health System would remove the question asking for criminal conviction history on the initial round of employment applications. This development should be celebrated: not only does it reflect the fruits of persistent community pressure, but it also signals that Duke’s administration is taking seriously the concerns and opportunities of Durham’s justice-involved population (which grows, on average, by more than 700 people each year) as part and parcel of the University’s role in bringing about economic justice in our community. We are thrilled for CEF members and other justice-involved individuals who will encounter one less barrier to finding employment and starting a career with the largest employer in Durham.

Nevertheless, this development is not sufficient. Banning the Box only addresses one symptom of a racist and unjust criminal-legal system, and it has a limited impact in reversing the myth that the formerly incarcerated are unworthy of a second opportunity. Even in places that have banned the Box, there is still some evidence of discrimination against African-American applicants. In other parts of the University, like undergraduate admissions, Duke still retains the Box, despite the Common Application announcing it would remove the disclosure on its application. Justice must not end at banning the Box. We must continue to push and advocate for policies that dismantle the myth of perpetual guilt that is thrust upon the formerly incarcerated. Duke must implement a complete Second Chance Hiring policy. 

Second Chance Hiring, also known as Fair Hiring, is a suite of policy choices designed to mitigate barriers for the formerly incarcerated at every stage in the application process and in employment. We don’t have to look far for a shining of example of Second Chance Hiring at work—the City of Durham has taken robust steps to create opportunity for justice-involved populations. In 2011, the City of Durham banned the Box and since then, not only has the number of formerly incarcerated people hired steadily increased, but Mayor Schewel and his office’s Bloomberg Innovation Team have prioritized reforming city government to make it an even more accessible place for justice-involved individuals to start a career, and encouraging local businesses and schools to follow suit. Duke can—and should—do the same.

At Duke, a Second Chance Hiring program could look like: 

  • Greater Duke support of non-profit and community organizations providing wrap-around services to applicants, like Duke's existing partnership with StepUp Durham. 
  • Targeted recruitment of justice-involved populations with certain benchmark thresholds for hiring;
  • Active review of hiring policies to ensure non-discrimination by race, gender, ability or type of charge (felony or misdemeanor);
  • Increased transparency and clarity on Duke’s hiring policies published online;
  • Regular, thorough and recurring racial equity training for Duke Human Resources staff.

After the hiring process is completed, Second Chance Hiring also means that those hired would receive a living wage, access to continued job skills training and fair opportunities to receive promotions and begin a career, rather than just simple entry-level employment. A fair process for justice-involved individuals goes far beyond the Box, because we know that removing the initial disclosure alone doesn’t make Duke a better place to work, eliminate bias in hiring, cultivate accountability, improve Duke’s community relationships, or, most importantly, tangibly increase the number of justice-involved people that Duke hires. 

Each of these policy options are within Duke’s power to implement. This means that Duke can play an active role in mitigating the barriers which prevent healthy and productive lives for justice-involved people and their families. Duke, as one of the most powerful institutions in North Carolina and a global university, can recognize and seek to address the disproportionate societal effects of mass incarceration on Black and Brown men and women, LGBTQIA+ folks and many others. In going beyond Ban the Box and implementing a Second Chance Hiring policy, Duke can spearhead initiatives to encourage other businesses and universities in Durham and beyond to take steps toward justice for the formerly incarcerated. 

Together, we must push Duke to become this leader. As students and community members in partnership with the formerly incarcerated, the City of Durham and community organizations like the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Inside-Outside Alliance, StepUp Durham, All of Us or None and Southerners on New Ground, today we celebrate this step toward a more just hiring process and the University’s existing efforts to reform its practices. But tomorrow, and in the days, weeks and months ahead, we will continue to push for more change. On campus, join People’s State of the University in moving toward economic justice for the formerly incarcerated through persistent and collective action that holds Duke accountable to the place it occupies in Durham. Duke must take this opportunity, too, to facilitate frank conversations with community partners directly and hear directly from the communities directly impacted. We applaud Duke for taking the step to ban the Box. Our work, however, is far from over. 

Trey Walk is a Trinity senior. Gino Nuzzolillo, Leah Abrams and Uwa Ihionkhan are Trinity juniors. 

Editor's note: This column was updated Monday morning to clarify that Duke already has some local partnerships with organizations that provide wrap-around services, like StepUp Durham.

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