For several decades, private and four year colleges in the U.S. except CUNY have made it mandatory for applicants to provide their history of crimes. Due to this requirement, ex-offenders are struggling to reflect on their past mistakes and take hold of the opportunities to do better. Robert Lewis, in his article High Hurdle to College for Ex-offenders, states that as part of the college application process for SUNY, nearly all ex-offenders are called in for interviews and questioning regarding their former criminal behavior. He states that by this stage, hardly any of the applicants receive positive reviews on their assessment or immediate confirmation on their enrollment. According to The Sentencing Project, the rate of incarceration in the U.S. is currently the highest in the world. However, SUNY police commissioner Bruce McBride justifies the criminal history specification with security concerns and the probability of recidivism during a student’s attendance.
Former New York City police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, stated in his interviews and published book, Jailer to Jailed, that the U.S. needs to make prison reforms due to the growing rate of incarceration. He criticized the prison system for being “tough on crime” because minor crimes can result in lengthened prison sentences. As more people are convicted of crimes, there is an immediate effect on the number of ex-offenders. The increase in criminal charges creates an obstacle for ex-convicts when they try to find a job, college admission, or anything which requires filling out applications. According to Robert Lewis, although there are numerous applicants with a criminal history who have been denied acceptance to college, over half of them drop out during the application process. They lose hope and confidence in themselves. In March 2015, state data showed that 35,000 individuals were released on parole in New York however, approximately only 500 had access to educational programs including college.
In an interview for the The Obstacle Course, Adrien Cadwallader recalled his experience with college officials from New Paltz as they questioned him about his past, especially his run-in with the law. Cadwallader, a 33 year old ex-offender whose criminal record consisted of 20 arrests spoke about how discouraged he felt in the process of applying to college. While in prison, Cadwallader caught up with his studies and hoped to gain a degree after his release, which would help him start over with a positive mindset. Therefore, determined, he went to the college evaluation and sent in letters from his psychologist and parole officer. After answering all the inquiries about his criminal record, he was eventually rejected by New Paltz and he gave up on college. “I felt like I was being set up to fail,” Cadwallader stated in the article by The Marshall Project.
Based on the article, Ban the Box by Michelle Rodriguez, currently 19 states in the U.S. including, Ohio, New York, and Oregon have “banned the box” for employment, which means one does not have to make any comments regarding their criminal history. Rodriguez clarifies that although an applicant’s background can be investigated after they’re hired, the legislation ensures that everyone is presented with a fair chance in the initial application process. These laws have inspired people to achieve the same for college admissions. A few schools have already removed any questions regarding criminal history such as St. John’s University as stated by Ariel Kaminer in the New York Times. More “ban the box” campaigns are being held throughout the nation. Further organizations such as the Center for Community Alternatives are advocating these ideas and publishing their research in order to eliminate assumptions of recidivism, which is a relapse of criminal behavior.
Deputy commissioner for SUNY, Paul Berger, expressed that awareness of the applicant’s criminal history is vital to campus’ safety. He further explains that it’s not their intention to discriminate against the applicants, instead they simply want to determine whether one is eligible for their college by extending the evaluation process. They also have to take into consideration that accepting ex-offenders may result in negative responses from students taking classes on that campus. “I think it’s okay for colleges to look into an applicant’s background. The college administrators have a responsibility to learn about them prior to accepting them. It helps them prepare for any situations relevant to the student which might occur in the future,” Tashi Sherpa, a junior in high school stated. Another student, a senior in high school preparing for college, Diana Rodriguez said “ I believe that criminal records should be asked about for the safety of the students at schools. This will show the true character of a person while making it possible for colleges to prevent accidents from occurring. It will inevitably affect the ex-offenders applying because it shows their irresponsibility in certain aspects and cause prejudiced thoughts against them.” Although Rodriguez revealed that this procedure may produce a negative impression of the applicants, particularly ex-offenders, the priority is to maintain a safe environment for learning.
Most applicants have always been obligated to inform colleges of their criminal history which influences their decision to either give up or to overcome the obstacles. As Robert Lewis claimed, everyday more ex-offenders are being rejected admission which reduces their chance of finding a decent job. College security officers like Paul Berger argue that the right to acquire the criminal history of applicants is necessary and helpful in determining an applicant’s eligibility.
Written by Tsering Dolkar
Photo Credits to Eiocoalition