Human Rights

Ban the Box: People with Convictions Deserve a Second Chance

New Mexico lays the groundwork for other states to proactively help people being released from jail and prison to find work and truly rebuild their lives.

On March 8, Governor Richardson signed legislation making New Mexico the second state in the nation to "ban the box." This victory lays the groundwork for other states to proactively address the need of people being released from jail and prison to find work and truly rebuild their lives. Employment is a key factor in preventing recidivism and this law offers an innovative solution to not only save precious taxpayer dollars, but also save lives and keep families together.

Senate Bill 254 "bans the box" by removing the question on public job applications asking if a person has a criminal conviction. By eliminating the box, people with convictions can be considered on equal status with other job applicants, instead of being immediately labeled and dismissed as a "criminal" unfit for the job. The law is very clear that public employers still have the right to ask about convictions status, but only during the finalist interview process. Employers can also perform criminal background checks if it is relevant or required for the position.

Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico took inspiration from the California-based advocacy group, All of Us or None, who has successfully banned the box in numerous cities and counties in California. In New Mexico, we worked for three years with dozens of individuals and community-based organizations to make this law a reality.

Any advocate would be thrilled with the passage of this bill, but as a person with a criminal conviction, I was particularly delighted to see this legislation make it through final passage and receive the Governor's signature.

When I was 18 years old, I was arrested and convicted on drug-related charges. Even though I was charged with a misdemeanor, received treatment instead of incarceration, completed all conditions of my probation, and the state dismissed the case against me, I still live everyday with the collateral consequences of that arrest and conviction. I have since gone to college, held internships, worked in the private sector, and have been employed as policy staff for Drug Policy Alliance since 2006. My professional experience, my job qualifications, and my passion to pursue a career serving the public good is often dismissed and trumped by the presence of just one little box on job applications.

Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Have you ever been convicted of violating any federal, state, or local law? Have you been convicted within the past five years? The questions come in many shapes and sizes, but the answer only comes in one -- a box -- check yes or no. If you are lucky, you may get the chance to explain your conviction in two or three sentences. Or maybe you get to attach a full page explaining the circumstances relating to your conviction. Maybe. One thing is certain, however; you have to check that box. Many employers use this criminal conviction question on job applications to immediately eliminate an applicant with a conviction, even if we are qualified for the position.

By asking about conviction history during the interview process, previously incarcerated persons will be on a level playing field with other candidates with similar qualifications when applying. People with convictions who are selected for an interview will be able to sit face-to-face with the employer and provide a full explanation of their conviction. Banning the box gives people this opportunity to get their foot in the door for an interview and to be seen for their qualifications, merits, and job experience - not just as a person who checked a box.

Communities around the country are recognizing the need to help previously incarcerated persons with the resources and opportunities to gain employment and integrate back into society. I applaud Governor Richardson for signing this bill, and am hopeful that this is just a first step to removing one of the many copious barriers to reentry for those of us with criminal convictions.

Julie Roberts in the acting director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico office.
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