“Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a felony? Check yes or no.”
For over two years the Incarceration to Education Coalition at New York University (NYU) has been organizing to abolish this checkbox from NYU’s admissions application.
Composed of current and former New York University students (both with and without “documented” criminal records), the coalition has obtained support from a vast coalition of community members, scholars, activists and artists to abolish this application question, which we refer to as “the box.”
We know that this question discriminates against poor communities of color, who are far more likely to be arrested and charged than other communities. Systemic violence such as housing regulation, poor public schooling, underfunded public benefits and sheer racism has continuously pushed these communities away from a college education and the benefits it entails. We know that people with a criminal record are discouraged from applying to college upon seeing this very question.
We are joined in our struggle to abolish this form of discrimination on a national scale by students and community members at a number of colleges and universities, as well as community organizers and activists across the United States.
In response to mounting pressure and tenacious organizing efforts, at least four New York area colleges and universities have taken steps to reform their policies around “the box.” In 2014, three institutions (St. John’s University, Dowling College and Five Towns College) reached a deal with the New York State Attorney General’s Office to change the wording of this application question. These schools agreed only to screen candidates based on convictions, as opposed to inquiring about all arrests, even those that did not lead to conviction. Meanwhile NYU, (after forcibly ejecting student and community organizers from deliberations) has promised to reform its admissions policy so that admissions officers will first review and accept students based on a preliminary “box-blind reading.” Students who checked the box will then undergo a secondary screening wherein NYU retains the right to deny admission.
There is a real temptation to herald incremental reforms like these as evidence of social progress, not only for those who currently bolster or benefit from the status quo, but also for those of us doing advocacy and organizing work.
However, even with the best of intentions, reformist approaches to structural violence and oppression can only replicate and entrench that violence. Constitutive to a reformist framework is a piecemeal approach that, in its attempts to alter minor details, necessarily reaffirms the larger structure. These reforms to education access for individuals and communities impacted by the criminal punishment system are no different.
The all-or-nothing stance of an abolitionist framework may appear more difficult and less politically palatable, but any semblance of progress or justice demands nothing less.
It is with this understanding that the Incarceration to Education Coalition refuses to accept these new policies as victories, and instead identifies reformist approaches to the issue as deliberate attempts to further entrench the violent and overtly discriminatory policies of the prison industrial complex.
The Box Does Not Make Our Campuses Safer
The popular rhetoric around the box is the idea that campuses must screen incoming students for their documented criminal histories in order to ensure campus safety, and that such screening is a foregone conclusion.
The facts of the box fly in the face of this rhetoric. There is nothing natural or common sense about this application question. In fact, this checkbox suddenly and mysteriously appeared on admissions applications for colleges and universities on a national level via the Common Application in 2006. The addition of this question was never proven to significantly alter campus safety. A comprehensive study done by the Center for Community Alternatives found no statistically significant differences in campus safety between schools that require applicants to disclose documented criminal histories and those that do not.
The box completely fails to identify individuals most likely to cause harm on campus. As Alan Rosenthal, co-director of Justice Strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives, reveals, “Those college applicants that do have experience with the criminal justice system, and who then decide to take the big step to go on with their education, are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior than their counterparts who have not had criminal justice experience.”
Compounding this harm is the fact that the discrimination of the box forecloses upon an individual’s education and the single most effective strategy in reducing recidivism rates.
The box fails by its own logic. Not only does it fail to predict who commits crimes on campus, but also its presence actively makes our campuses and communities less safe.
These blatantly false appeals to public safety are nothing more than pathetic excuses offered in the face of the box’s overwhelming racism, sexism, classism and homophobia. Reformist approaches to this application question that in any way attempt to validate its existence do nothing but validate and reproduce its discriminatory violence.
Even a surface level analysis of the reforms undertaken by these four schools reveals them to be nothing but a reproduction of racist violence.
For context, St. John’s University, Dowling College and Five Towns College were pressured to change their policies by the attorney general, who took exception to the “overbroad nature” of their versions of the box (it is their version of the box quoted at the beginning of this article). The attorney general’s office argued that “the information solicited by the schools was overbroad and not relevant to an applicant’s fitness as a student,” going on to say that such questions “disproportionately disadvantaged African-American and Hispanic men [who are] more likely than white men to be stopped, detained, and arrested by police for minor misconduct.”
The schools in question agreed with the attorney general’s objections. Notably, they agreed with the racist and discriminatory implications of the application question as a direct consequence of the racist and discriminatory practices of the criminal legal system. But instead of abolishing the box altogether, they decided that altering the wording of their question to only ask about arrests that led to conviction would somehow solve the problem.
This is where any and all logic seems to break down. The previous iteration of the box that asked about arrests and convictions was deemed unacceptable through an acknowledgement of the discriminatory and racist practices involved in an individual being stopped, detained and arrested by the police. The current iteration, which only asks about convictions, somehow makes the claim that the racism accepted as being inherent in the process of stopping, detaining and arresting an individual magically disappears if an individual is convicted.
This is a perfect example of why reformist practices do not offer tenable solutions. This new version of the box is exactly as racist as its predecessor but is more insidious in that its continued “revised” existence entrenches the idea that the box in some form is necessary, thus entrenching its inherent violence.
NYU attempted a different kind of reformist tactic. In a recent policy change, the university has promised to conduct an initial “box-blind” reading, where it will consider and accept applicants without considering an individual’s documented criminal history. It is only after applicants have been accepted, that the university considers whether or not an individual has checked the box, and retains the right to revoke the acceptance.
Again, the failings of a reformist approach are readily apparent. The viability of an initial “box-blind” reading is a tacit admission to the fact that an individual’s contact with the criminal legal system is irrelevant to a student’s application and their readiness for college-level work. To go back and reassert the box in a secondary reading is simply an attempt to entrench and normalize its violence.
Reformist approaches may offer an ego boost and good PR to those within the institutions, but they do so only by further validating the exclusion of the groups these policies pretend to help, and they are tacit acceptances of the violence that any vestige of the box inflicts on communities that are systematically and historically targeted by the criminal legal system.
The violence and discrimination of the box can only end with its abolition.