Earlier this year, the Common Application announced to its member institutions that, starting in the 2019–20 admissions cycle, it will no longer ask applicants about their criminal history. The decision marks a major victory for the national civil rights campaign known as “Ban the Box,” which is focused on eliminating discrimination against people with conviction histories.
However, individual colleges and universities will still have the ability to put the checkbox asking whether an applicant has been “adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor or felony” on his or her own application forms. Checking “yes” is understood to be grounds for highly probable, if not immediate, rejection, discouraging most students with conviction histories from even applying.
By the end of this academic year, the University must decide whether to follow the lead of the Common Application in banning the box. On Monday, Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) presented this issue at the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) meeting and was met with resistance from President Christopher Eisgruber ’83. We call upon University students to join the Ban the Box campaign in pressuring the University administration to keep questions about criminal convictions out of the undergraduate application supplement.
What is the importance of banning the box? The box perpetuates structural racism and classism in American society. By tying educational access to a fundamentally unfair and discriminatory criminal justice system, the box creates a formidable barrier to institutions of higher education that primarily impedes low-income and non-white students. Its presence on applications does not translate into increased safety on college campuses; it undermines the ability of qualified students to pursue their education if they are poor or people of color. For example, black and Hispanic men receive longer sentences than white men for the same drug offenses, and fewer than one in five low-income people living in the United States who are facing legal problems can also afford adequate legal representation.
Many proponents of the box argue that students with criminal records are dangerous, and that their exclusion promotes the safety of the college community as a whole. Yet, according to a study conducted by the Center for Community Alternatives, colleges that do not collect or use criminal justice information are no less safe than colleges that do. Moreover, 96.7 percent of students who commit misdemeanors during their time at college have no prior conviction histories, while only 8.5 percent of students admitted with prior conviction histories go on to engage in misdemeanors. Finally, all 10 campuses belonging to the University of California, whose application does not ask about criminal records, have a lower rate of sexual misconduct than the University does. Promoting campus safety through the construction of a safe community is of the utmost importance, but it has become clear that putting the box on college applications is not the way to do it.
Therefore, since poor and non-white people face more severe punishments for misdemeanors, more targeting from law enforcement officials, and less access to legal resources so disproportionately, conviction history ceases to be a useful or even meaningful metric of character, culpability, or criminal tendency. Especially odious is the fact that prospective students with enough financial means can pay to expunge misdemeanors from their records, which gives them the ability to check “no” when presented with the box. It could not be more obvious that the box serves the function of a racial and socioeconomic collegiate gatekeeper more than anything else.
Lastly, educating people with criminal histories is one of the most effective measures that we can take to prevent recidivism, the rate of which is currently at around 75 percent in the United States. The University, an institution that declares itself to be “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity,” must reaffirm its commitment to equity, diversity, and educational accessibility by banning the box. The University, an institution that wields international prestige as one of the best and most well-known universities in the world, must also lead the ongoing fight against systemic discrimination by banning the box.
Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) is an undergraduate organization, established at the University in 2012, that educates, advocates, and agitates against mass incarceration.