Students for Prison Education and Reform launched their Admissions Opportunity Campaign with an online petition last week. The goal of the campaign is for the University to remove all questions regarding past involvement with the justice system from the undergraduate application.
Currently, the University requires applicants to disclose whether they have a criminal record through a question on the Common Application that was introduced in 2006. The University adopted the question, although the Common Application is developed by an independent organization and is used by hundreds of colleges in the United States.
According to SPEAR’s website, the petition should be signed because “the United States justice system is racially and economically discriminatory.”
Shaina Watrous ’14, who co-founded SPEAR in fall 2012 with Joe Barrett ’14 and Grace Li ’14, said if a student commits a criminal offense and is a person of color, then he or she is more likely to be arrested. By asking for students’ past involvement with the justice system, she explained, colleges are perpetuating discrimination.
“When people hear that someone has had past involvement with the justice system, they have this visceral reaction — they are the other, and we shouldn’t have anything to do with them,” Watrous said. “This is the kind of attitude we are looking to change.”
Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye said in an interview that the Office of Admission finds it is important to ask about misconduct and convictions because "we [at the Office of Admission] consider the responses to these questions useful to our holistic review of the applicant."
Daniel Teehan ’17, the current chair of the Advocacy Committee of SPEAR, said when people think of people who are incarcerated, they automatically think of murderers. However, he noted that “when you delve into the numbers … you quickly realize that most of the people there are there because of minor drug infractions, selective policing and draconian sentencing practices.”
The applicants most likely to be affected by the questions were arrested for doing some of the same things that many members of the current student body also did in high school, Teehan said. For him, the difference was that the applicants were unfortunate enough to be caught.
“These are people that I, and many others, feel that our society has done a great wrong [to],” Teehan said, “and as of now, we are contributing to those punishments.”
SPEAR members also explain on the website that individuals who’ve had past involvement with the justice system would bring more diversity to Princeton, and that past involvement is not an accurate prediction of a student’s on-campus behavior.
“We’re not saying that if someone has a criminal record, they should be let into Princeton,” Watrous noted. “The application is extremely thorough. There are many ways to evaluate a person’s character.”
Mackenzie Dooner ’17, who joined SPEAR this semester, added that, as an institution that values diversity so highly, the University should open its doors to everyone.
“I think there’s no reason that someone involved in the justice system couldn’t make academic contributions or contributions to campus life,” Dooner said. She added that the justice system suppresses those who have been involved with it, especially in terms of economic prosperity and educational pursuit.
“The presence of the question on the application has the strong potential to discourage people who would check yes from applying at all,” Teehan said.
Rapelye, though, said that a student isn't automatically overlooked if he or she checks the misconduct or the conviction box. The additional essay explaining the circumstances helps the admissions committee make their decision.
“This was accepted without enough thought as to what kind of message this sends to people in communities who are targeted by the justice system,” Watrous said of the University's decision to require this particular question in the Common Application.
Although the main goal of the campaign is to eliminate the question from the application, Watrous said the conversation that the petition is generating is a big part of SPEAR’s mission. They would like to get people on campus to start questioning the justice system, she said.
“This petition is just one part of a larger campus discussion that we wish to have and a consensus that we want to work towards in order to move towards having this policy reworked,” Teehan said.
Watrous and other members of the campaign have been in Frist Campus Center trying to get student signatures on the petition, and she noted that they have received 474 signatures as of Sunday afternoon.
Members of SPEAR have reached out to University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and Dean of the College Valerie Smith in hopes that they would support SPEAR’s mission. Watrous said that the petition will be important in demonstrating student and faculty support for the campaign.