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Testimony of Tracie Johnson on Colleges Asking About Criminal Records Histories

Youth Justice Project

Testimony of Tracie Johnson 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 Tracie Johnson and I am an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig in the Employment Unit at Community Legal Services. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today about the urgent need for colleges to ban the box and why doing so is necessary for our city, our young people, communities of color, and increasingly, for women. 

As a legal intern at CLS, and now as a legal fellow, I have done extensive research on the criminal records screening policies of a variety of Philadelphia area colleges and universities.  I have found that when applicants answer affirmatively to the criminal records question, the college admissions committee at a given school will often review the record, ask applicants to complete supplemental forms or come in for additional interviewing. As you can imagine, this additional process can cast serious doubts on an applicant’s own belief about their ability to be admitted.  Applicants become fearful of being rejected and decide not to complete their application; they self-select out.

None of the schools surveyed in my research have data on the attrition or denial rates of applicants who answer affirmatively to the criminal records question. However, the State University of New York, SUNY, conducted a study looking at the attrition rates for applicants with felonies on their criminal record. The study revealed that each year 2,924 applicants check the box disclosing a felony conviction. Of those, 1,828 do not complete the application. Colleges and Community Fellowship, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women with criminal convictions earn college degrees, reports that two out of three people that start a college application and select yes to the question regarding criminal history do not finish the application. This evidences a huge barrier to accessing higher education for people with criminal records.

Asking about criminal records on college applications has a disproportionate impact on young people of color. Due to inequities such as the over-policing of black and brown neighborhoods and the alarming rate at which students of color are funneled into the criminal justice system because of school discipline issues, young people of color are particularly likely to have juvenile or criminal records. Black youth are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested and prosecuted in juvenile court in Philadelphia than their white peers. Black youth make up only 13.4% of the youth population, but accounted for 45.5% of juvenile arrests. Black young adults aged 18-24 in Pennsylvania account for 31.6% of arrests, while older Black adults account for 26.8% of arrests.

Giving the racial bias and inequity that exists throughout the criminal justice system, asking about criminal records on college applicants has civil rights implications. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits entities, including schools that receive federal funds, from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Asking about criminal records on college applications is a practice that disproportionately causes young people of color to opt out of applying to college or suffer rejection due to their records. There is no substantial justification for asking about criminal history on college applications, especially given its exclusionary impact. 

To be sure, there is no research indicating that screening for criminal records on college applications or turning away applicants with criminal records make colleges any safer. Research does show that opening the doors to higher education for applicants with records makes society safer. College and Community Fellowships reports that 66% of incarcerated non-degree earners nationwide are likely to return to prison within three years of release. The likelihood drops to 5.6% for Bachelor’s degree recipients and less than 1% for Master’s degree recipients. Therefore, asking about criminal records on college applications shuts out scores of young people, women, and people of color with criminal records without any legitimate justification.

Through my fellowship work, I examine the ways in which criminal justice issues have an intersectional impact on the lives of young women of color. Women are the fastest growing demographic in the prison population, in part due to the failed war on drugs. Black women in particular are now as likely to be incarcerated as white men. Over two-thirds of incarcerated women are also mothers, and many are the sole wage-earners for their families. As such, women are increasingly suffering the consequences of having a criminal record. I have had the privilege of working with smart, ambitious women who are denied access to meaningful and gainful employment because of their record. Being excluded from higher education adds to that employment barrier, keeping women trapped in low-wage jobs.

I work with women who aim to become teachers, nurses, small business owners, and more. I work with women who are mothers and the primary caretakers of their families. Banning the box on college applications will help the young women of color I work with, attain an education that will afford them access to meaningful, high-growth work and will ultimately help them provide for themselves and the families that depend on them, thus breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

I testify before you all today in a very hopeful spirit. I am first hoping that City Council will help us bring attention to this very important issue. I also hope that the communities that care about this issue feel the tide changing. It was our collective work that helped get the question dropped from the Common Application. Hopefully, Philadelphia area colleges and universities will decide to follow suit and drop the criminal records question from their applications. I also hope that applicants who are paying attention to this movement feel supported and more confident applying to colleges and pursuing their dreams.

Thank you to Councilman Jones, and other members of City Council, for inviting us to speak today.