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Testimony of Jamie Gullen on Colleges Asking About Criminal Records Histories

Youth Justice Project

Testimony of Jamie Gullen on Colleges Asking About Criminal Records Histories

Date Posted: 

The following testimony was delivered to Philadelphia City Council on October 16, 2018.

My name is Jamie Gullen and I am a Supervising Attorney in the Employment Unit at Community Legal Services (“CLS”) and I co-lead CLS’s Youth Justice Project. CLS’s Employment Unit has been at the forefront of advocating for the rights of people with criminal and juvenile records for decades. Every year, we work with around 1,000 Philadelphians who are struggling to access employment opportunities because of their records. Many of our clients are desperate to find work, even entry-level minimum wage jobs. However, we know that for our clients, and other low-income Philadelphians, minimum wage jobs are not enough. People need and deserve access to the education and training that will allow them to obtain careers that pay living wages so they can support themselves and their families with dignity.

That is why CLS, along with our partners here today, are calling on all Philadelphia area colleges and universities to end educational discrimination against people with records by Banning the Box on their applications, ending the practice of asking about criminal histories. We are also asking Philadelphia City Council to encourage colleges and universities to Ban the Box.

The Common Application, which is a centralized process allowing for easy application to multiple colleges, announced that it would no longer ask about criminal records. This is a huge step in the right direction, and resulted from the tireless efforts of advocates around the country, some of whom are here today. However, the decision about whether to ask about prior records now rests solely in the discretion of individual colleges and universities, almost all of which in the Philadelphia area do ask about records on their applications. This practice is problematic in multiple ways.

First, it is unclear how the information about prior records is being used. A study conducted among New York colleges found that fewer than half of the schools that collected criminal record information had policies in place about how to use the information, and sixty percent of colleges provided no training to admissions officers on how to interpret record information. Three quarters of colleges that collected the information used the information in making admissions decisions. One quarter of schools surveyed had in place automatic bars to admission for certain types of records. Because the admissions process is a “black box,” it is impossible to know exactly how Philadelphia area schools are evaluating criminal record information. But we call on Philadelphia’s colleges and universities to release information on their policies, training protocols, and admissions outcomes for individuals who disclose criminal records on applications.

In addition to outright denials, asking about records on college applications also has a deterrent effect on students applying to college in the first place. A study found that of the students who applied to the State University of New York (SUNY) system and checked the box stating that they had a prior felony conviction, 62% did not complete the applications. This is called “felony application attrition” and particularly impact applicants of color, who due to racial bias in our justice system, are more likely to have prior records. Due to the discriminatory and detrimental impact of asking about prior records, SUNY removed its question regarding prior records from its application in 2018.

In a city like Philadelphia that has the highest poverty rate of any big city in the country, this issue is even more critical. It is estimated that 500,000 Philadelphians have some kind of prior record. Philadelphia has also had the highest rate of mass incarceration of any big city in the country. A recent study found that had mass incarceration not occurred between 1980 and 2004, the poverty rate would be 20% lower today. If Philadelphia is serious about reducing its poverty rate, then ameliorating the impact of mass incarceration on its residents must be a top priority. Because of the higher wages associated with higher education, ending educational discrimination for people with records is critical to this effort.

Moreover, education is one of the most effective ways to prevent individuals from returning to prison. Individuals who engaged in educational programming were 43% less likely to return to prison, and had employment rates up to 28% higher upon release from prison. If Philadelphia is serious about ending mass incarceration, ending educational discrimination and increasing access to education both inside and outside of prison is essential.

Colleges and universities have justified their discriminatory practices by claiming that criminal record screening is important to keep their campuses safe. While screening for prior records may seem like an easy way to accomplish this goal, it is unfortunately ineffective. One study found that over 96% of college seniors who engaged in misconduct on campus did NOT report having a criminal record during the admissions process. Another study showed that crimes on campus are often committed by students who have no criminal record, and tend to be related to binge drinking, Greek life, and college athletics. This is why a notable national survivor-led organization called Know Your IX that empowers students to end sexual violence is in support of efforts to Ban the Box on college applications.

Recent research also shows that individuals with records may actually be more likely to succeed when given opportunities than those without records. A study of individuals with records who enlisted in the military showed that those with prior records were promoted more quickly and to higher ranks, and were no more likely to leave due to poor performance, than were other enlistees. We must hold local colleges and universities accountable to base their admissions policies in evidence-based practices, rather than falling back on tired stereotypes of people with prior records.

We must also look to leaders like the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) who are demonstrating that inclusion works. The Vice President for Academic and Student Success at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), Dr. Samuel Hirsch, has explained why CCP does not ask about criminal records on its application, stating: “Community College of Philadelphia strongly supports open-access to higher education because it serves as the foundation for strong, prosperous communities. Individuals who have paid their debt to society and served their sentences deserve a chance to fully develop the academic abilities that will enable them to contribute in meaningful ways across this City. With more than a quarter of local residents currently living below the poverty line, there is a pressing need to educate even greater numbers of Philadelphians.” CCP’s Reentry Support Project is also a model in not only accepting people with prior records, but supporting them to be successful in achieving their goals. We need more local colleges and universities to step up and be leaders alongside CCP.

Philadelphia is full of motivated and capable individuals with prior records who will become the future leaders of our city if given the chance. Rather than block their potential and miss out on their badly needed contributions, Philadelphia area colleges and universities should adopt best practices and remove questions about juvenile and criminal records from their applications. This simple change will not impact campus safety, but will open the door to opportunity to countless people who will further their educations and careers while enhancing the diversity and vitality of campuses, communities, and our city as a whole.

Thank you to Councilman Jones and to City Council for holding this hearing and inviting us to speak today on this issue of great importance to our city.