Courage of Convictions

By Melissa Carson

Barring access to higher education for people with criminal histories …

It is becoming a source of growing outrage and disgrace that the U.S. comprises about 5% of the world’s population, but is responsible for incarcerating 25% of the world’s prison population. Massachusetts—along with many other states—spends more of its annual budget on corrections and warehousing criminals than on public higher education. Could there be a correlation between those facts and the statistics that show the rate of criminal recidivism in Massachusetts is nearly 50%, but the rate of recidivism for people who go on to complete postsecondary education is almost as low as 5%? Despite what these statistics seem to imply, there is a growing trend in college admissions offices that threatens access to education from people who have criminal histories.

More and more college admissions offices are inquiring about student applicant’s criminal histories and making it nearly impossible for applicants who been convicted of crimes to gain admissions. In Massachusetts, nearly 75% of colleges inquire about criminal histories as a standard part of their student application process, according to “Requiring Criminal Record Disclosures in the College Application Process,” recent research by Robert Stewart prepared for the annual meetings of the Law and Society Association to be held May 2014 in Minneapolis.

Many institutions even inquire about juvenile criminal background, which is typically legally protected confidential information, depending on the state laws. These admissions screening practices are not based on statistical data. There is none to support the argument that crimes on campus are committed by enrolled students with criminal histories or that eliminating their presence in a student body will affect campus safety. It is only theory that this practice will lead to safer college campuses or a more engaged student body. In reality, college campuses are often like small cities or towns but are far safer statistically, than equivalently populated areas. Research that is developing in the wake of this trend reveals that the theory is completely invalid and that people who have criminal histories are being used as campus crime-reduction scapegoats. Further, people with criminal histories tend to be some of the most dedicated and high-achieving students in light of all they have worked to overcome.

Where  it began

Let’s explore how this trend began. In the wake of the national tragedy of 9/11, our nation was roused into a heightened state of interest in greater national security. One effect to come from the fallout of the devastation of that event was an enormous nationwide spike in the number of employers paying for independent criminal history screening for potential job applicants and inquiring about criminal histories on initial job applications. All this came despite the fact that the terrorists responsible for 9/11 had no criminal histories. The trend in background screening also emerged because we are in an information age. Anyone who has run an Internet search knows, however, that much of the information out there is not accurate. The same is true of criminal history and background search information. Whether public (state or national) or private, the information that is yielded by background searches is notoriously inaccurate. This practice has led to tens of thousands of people with criminal backgrounds, mostly male minority workers, unable to acquire work in even the most basic minimum-wage paying entry-level positions.

There was so much injustice in the practice of employment and housing discrimination, based on criminal background, that civil rights and ex-offender advocacy groups rose up in a collaborative effort to enact Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) reform in states like Massachusetts. A big part of the platform for this argument was, how can a person who has been convicted of a crime learn from their criminal justice system punishment and go on to become a productive member of society if they don’t have a chance to get a job after paying their debt to society? It is counterproductive for community crime reduction if the system does not enable and promote rehabilitation. A recent RAND Corporation study shows that recidivism rates drop dramatically for ex-offenders after receiving an education. A person with something to lose is much less likely to be inclined to re-offend than one with nothing. In Massachusetts, research shows that nearly 50% of ex-offenders go on to re-offend, but that rate drops to only around 5% of ex-offenders who complete postsecondary education.  It seems likely that overall recidivism could decrease, in states like Massachusetts, if CORI reform laws already in place were expanded to include college admissions applications.

The college admissions screening practice was also likely spurred as a reaction to the national tragedies of mass school shootings. The shooters, however, did not have criminal backgrounds and, in some cases, weren’t even enrolled students. Most, if not all of them, do however have issues with varying types of mental illness. I shudder to think of what college admissions will be reduced to, how much more student applicants will have their privacy violated, and how many more will be wrongly discriminated against should the filtering practices move to that arena. This possible next step is not outside the realm of probability when it becomes clear that the elimination of ex-offenders from college campuses will have little to no effect on crime rates.

Rebuilding lives

A more accurate picture of students with criminal backgrounds who go on to enter postsecondary academic programs comes from recognizing that they are in school out of a devout dedication to rebuild their lives and recover from their pasts. Statistics support that they are far less likely to commit campus crime than other students. They have a higher likelihood of pursuing philanthropic endeavors such as becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister to a child who may be growing up under the same kind of strain that they endured in their own childhood, becoming a substance-abuse counselor, a volunteer at a soup kitchen or a worker in the nonprofit sector advocating for others. Or they may fall in love with and go on to seek employment within the higher education system that illuminated for them a world like they never knew before it came into their perspective.

Some people don’t learn the lessons of our society at home or in secondary schools. For some, especially those from troubled homes, suffering from some form of mental illness or raised in low-income families, the lessons may come from the criminal justice system. As a society, we hope that these individuals will learn their lessons through the criminal justice system and not go on to become repeat offenders. The best we can hope for is that they will learn and then take their personal recovery to the next level by “paying it forward” and involving themselves, socially or professionally in the prevention of such sad circumstances among others growing up under similar conditions. The national trend of screening student applicants in higher education for criminal backgrounds has a devastating impact on the realization of such hopes for rehabilitation. This practice disproportionately affects nontraditional students and those of vulnerable minority and low-income populations by limiting their access to personal rehabilitation and development through quality higher education and job-skills training.

What brought me to this research and strong desire to advocate was my own discrimination experience. Recently, the University of Massachusetts in Amherst broke a statewide compact, called the MassTransfer agreement, between four-year state colleges and community colleges, within my home state of Massachusetts, and declined my admission application. In knowing violation of current Massachusetts CORI laws, the university required me to submit a copy of my personal CORI report to them as a condition of admission consideration. They did this despite a guarantee of admission, per the terms of the MassTransfer agreement, based on my cumulative grade point average of 3.73 upon my graduation from Greenfield Community College last June. UMass Amherst legal counsel denies that my admission rejection was a result of criminal history discrimination, but scrambled to get language added to the MassTransfer agreement to allow for such future refusals, per the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, in the wake of my protest of their CORI violation. Sadly, it seems that their request has been honored. It can now be read on the UMass Amherst website that they will take criminal histories into consideration for MassTransfer applicants.

I am now 36 years old and in long-term recovery from alcoholism. I cannot imagine how it can be conceived that my having been twice convicted of DUI, years ago in my past, makes me a greater risk of campus violence or crime. In the interests of honesty and full disclosure, I wrote an addendum to my application explaining how I have been in active long-term recovery since the arrest that led to my last conviction and admission of guilt. As a direct result of my past, I am deeply engaged in service-based recovery and am an active advocate for campus support of people seeking recovery from drugs and alcohol. At my alma mater, where I was a member of their Phi Theta Kappa International Honors Society chapter, I helped to found a club for students in recovery and their allies. I also participated in the making of a documentary that encourages the development of campus recovery support groups, sending a message of hope to others in and seeking recovery, and trying to expose to those who have never suffered from alcoholism and addiction some of the real faces of recovery.

With all the progress that I have made, it was jarring to encounter discrimination of that nature and, on behalf of the thousands who this effects (including some of my graduate peers) who are afraid to raise their voices on the issue, or even to complete an application with the criminal background question on it out of shame of their past, I have felt an irresistible calling to stand up to a practice that I believe to be inherently morally unjust and societally and culturally counterproductive. Despite the months that I have spent working on researching this and reaching out to groups like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Boston Worker’s Alliance, and the Massachusetts Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, I have found that this issue is largely under-addressed, even nationwide, making my resolve to push for change and awareness all the more determined.

One in four adults in the U.S. will be convicted of a crime in their lifetime. Around 50% of those people, in Massachusetts, never go on to re-offend. It is unlikely that I can be convinced that these people deserve to be permanently barred from access to quality public higher education and continue to be punished by, of the all national establishments to do so, the educators of our society. Forgiveness should begin somewhere or what business do we have, as a nation, calling our houses for incarceration “correctional institutions”?

Melissa Carson is currently studying full-time toward a bachelor’s degree in Biology with a pre-professional concentration at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. She plans to go on to medical school and hopes to become a rural-area serving primary care physician and do volunteer work with the international Doctors Without Borders program. She volunteers weekly at the Berkshire Food Project and for the national advocacy group, Education From The Inside Out.  She intends to continue her volunteer advocacy work through college and beyond.

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