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‘Ban the Box’ to Give Out Second Chances

For the many Tennesseans concerned that outdated criminal justice laws are endangering public safety and ruining people's lives, it's heartening that Congress has indicated that it hopes to take up the issue during the coming weeks.

But it remains unclear whether any legislation will make it to the president's desk.

That's why the nearly 89,000 employers that call Tennessee home should consider voluntarily taking action themselves.

Businesses have a powerful role to play in giving individuals with criminal records a second chance. The easiest step they can take is to "ban the box."

Right now, most employers require job seekers to check a box on an application if they have any criminal record. Too often, this can function as an automatic "application denied" for individuals who have any blemish in their past.

Nationwide, some 650,000 incarcerated individuals rejoin society every year, and they desperately need jobs to help them transition back into society and to provide for themselves and their families. But the criminal record box often shuts them out of the job market before they can get a foot in the door. A 2009 study by Harvard and Princeton researchers showed individuals who checked the box reduced their chances of a callback by 50 percent, with blacks hurt twice as much as whites.

Sure enough, unemployment among those with criminal records remains staggeringly high: A third of men without jobs between the ages of 25 and 54 have a criminal record. And the lack of employment is one of the key reasons why over two-thirds are re-arrested, over half are re-convicted, and two out of five are re-incarcerated within three years of release.

Ex-offender unemployment not only holds back individuals working to improve their lives, it also stifles our economy. A 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated the annual lost economic value at between $57 billion and $65 billion.

These are a few of the reasons why my employer, Koch Industries, officially banned the box on our job application forms last year, including for applicants in Tennessee. Now we delay the question until later in the hiring process. This allows us to consider a candidate's past record in the context of their other life experiences.

Companies big and small have made the same choice because it makes sense from a business perspective.

With an estimated 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. having some sort of criminal record, it's shortsighted for an employer to potentially eliminate one-third of the available applicant pool. We should seek the best talent, period — with or without a record.

Over the years at Koch, individuals hired with a past record have been dedicated employees who have succeeded at the company. They are valuable contributors and, more importantly, they are on a path towards a productive and fulfilling life.

We recognize that banning the box may not make sense for every business, which is why a government mandate isn't the solution. Each employer needs to make its own decision on this issue. If the roughly 89,000 employers in Tennessee voluntarily considered banning the box, the social and economic landscape could be defined by more opportunity and prosperity, especially for the least fortunate.

Thousands of Tennesseans with criminal records try to rejoin society every year, and they want to contribute to their communities and improve their lives. Tennessee businesses can help them by breaking down barriers that stand in their way. No one should be judged forever based on what they did on their worst day — and everyone deserves a second chance.

Mark Holden is general counsel and senior vice president at Koch Industries.

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