Making education accessible to ex-convicts
A new bill may make Maryland the first state to prohibit universities from requiring prospective students to disclose their criminal backgrounds on initial applications.
Introduced in the Maryland General Assembly on Feb. 1, the bill is the latest initiative of the “Ban the Box” movement, which seeks to stop employers from requiring job applicants to reveal their criminal records.
Typically, potential employees are required to check a box indicating if they do or do not have a prior conviction.
The bill, titled the Maryland Fair Access to Education Act of 2017, would ban the box in the college admissions process for any school that receives state funding, including Hopkins.
Stanley Andrisse, a post doctoral fellow at the School of Medicine and former convict, testified before the state legislature in support of the bill last month. Andrisse is involved in various efforts to help former inmates returning to Baltimore lead productive lives.
He works with Aim to B’More, an initiative by the State Attorney’s Office to provide skills and training to first-time felony drug offenders. Andrisse is also a board member of Advocates for Goucher Prison Education Partnership, which gives inmates the chance to pursue a Bachelor’s degree.
Andrisse believes that he can be an advocate and a mentor for ex-convicts like him.
Although he was accepted by St. Louis University to pursue his Ph.D, Andrisse faced numerous rejections from other programs. While he cannot say for sure why he was denied admission, Andrisse believes he was disqualified because of his criminal record, rather than his academic qualifications.
“The one thing I will say is that I graduated at the top of my class in the program that I was in,” he said. “The average number of years for most people to finish their Ph.D in the program is six to seven years. I finished in four.”
After finishing his Ph.D, Andrisse came to Hopkins to complete his post-doctoral studies in pediatric endocrinology. He explained that one of the reasons he chose Hopkins was because he knew the Hospital was a leading employer of former convicts.
Between five and 10 percent of employees at the Hospital have been incarcerated at some point. In 2015, University President Ronald J. Daniels affirmed the University’s commitment to hiring former inmates, noting that the institutions employed over 120 ex-offenders that year.
In addition, the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System has banned the box in its hiring process.
While Ban the Box laws concerning employment have gained support in 25 states, they have yet to be extensively applied to the college admissions process. Many states require colleges to inquire about criminal backgrounds, and over 600 schools, like Hopkins, ask because they use the Common Application.
If the bill is passed into law, Hopkins would be impacted, since it is a private school that receives state funds.
In an email to The News-Letter, a spokesman for Hopkins expressed the University’s support for the sentiment behind the bill.
“We are sympathetic with the aims of this legislation,” the statement read. “The university has long believed that the admissions process should involve a holistic evaluation of an applicant’s academic and personal accomplishments, and that a criminal record does not preclude an applicant from achieving academic success.”
However, like other higher education institutions in Maryland, the University is concerned with how the bill will affect applications like the Common Application, which asks about a student’s criminal background.
According to the General Assembly’s fiscal and policy analysis of the bill, colleges would need to stop using the Common Application or hide the answer from consideration if it is passed.
The University took issue with other aspects of the bill that it feels are too restrictive.
“The bill, as currently written, would bar an institution from rescinding any acceptance on the basis of new information about a criminal record,” the spokesman wrote. “That provision would handcuff colleges and universities that are committed to that holistic evaluation of an applicant’s credentials.”
Other opponents of the bill believe that a question about an individual’s criminal record is valuable and provides important information. Some also express concern over allowing ex-convicts onto college campuses.
However, Andrisse noted that the colleges are still able to conduct background checks and take necessary measures to keep campuses safe. The bill would only prohibit colleges from disregarding an applicant solely on the basis of possessing a criminal record.
Andrisse stressed that the question’s presence on college applications creates mental barriers that may discourage ex-convicts from even applying.
“It’s just another question until you have to worry about it,” he said. “But if you have a [criminal] background, it’s a mountainous barrier. You see it, and you become fearful. You see it and you think, ‘this place doesn’t want you.’”
The bill, according to Andrisse, would help remove stigma that is attached to formerly incarcerated individuals.
“Prison is what I went through. It’s not who I am,” he said.
Andrisse stated that for the next couple of months, lawmakers will be working to convince senators to vote in favor of the bill.
The University has said that it will continue to work with the bill’s sponsors and the higher education community to ensure equal opportunities for former inmates.
Andrisse is hopeful that the bill will be passed into law. He believes education is a crucial factor in ensuring returning citizens’ future prosperity. “Returning citizens” is a term used to describe former inmates transitioning back into their communities.
“Education, for me, is the biggest piece for a returning citizen to be successful,” he said. “They of course need income, housing, those types of supports. With education, they can actually build a career.”
Members of the Johns Hopkins Jail Tutorial Project also see education as an equalizing force for incarcerated individuals. The student-run organization works to provide educational opportunities, like GED tutoring and college courses, to people in correctional institutions in Maryland.
Co-President Hirsh Shekhar explained that education can help inmates seek out better employment opportunities.
“Something that is common to a lot of job applications and programs, both within institutions and within the community, is having a GED or a college degree,” he said. “By providing those opportunities, we’re opening doors for the populations that we work with.”
Junior Melissa Austin, who is the secretary of the club, and senior Lucinda Chiu, the co-president, noted that it is difficult for former inmates to rebuild their lives and careers after prison.
Austin, Shekhar and Chiu stated that while their views are not necessarily representative of their organization, they personally support Ban the Box laws.
Chiu emphasized that high recidivism rates can be linked to societal stigma that persists long after an individual has served their sentence.
“Personally, I think we should give these people another chance,” she said. “Otherwise they’re going to go right back to the environment they came from, and it’s just going to lead to more recidivism.”
Shekhar pointed out that many colleges require applicants to disclose criminal histories because of state law and Common Application requirements. This, he believes, makes it too easy for colleges to vindicate their role in including questions about criminal records on applications.
“Perhaps one less controversial step we can take is to remove the [question] requirement so that each college… has to have a conversation and defend for themselves why they want to ask it,” he said.
Haziq Siddiqi, a recent graduate and former co-president of Jail Tutorial, believes former inmates should be encouraged to pursue a higher education. He thinks banning the box in the college admissions process can have some success, but it will not solve all of the problems former inmates face.
For example, Siddiqi explained that people with criminal records often have difficulty obtaining financial aid, especially since Congress has forbidden inmates from receiving Pell Grants.
“I want to emphasize that removing a question about criminal records is only part of the bigger picture,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “There are a variety of ways in which the higher education system has systematically discouraged people with criminal records from receiving education.”