BY CHERYL SLAVIN
About 50 people gathered on the steps of the Allison-Parris County Office Building Tuesday evening to show support for a legislative resolution that would result in eliminating questions about an applicant’s criminal background from initial job applications in the County.
Sponsored by the grassroots “Rockland Coalition to End the New Jim Crow,” the rally also was used to promote a broader agenda of ending alleged racial disparity throughout the criminal justice system. Speakers addressed the recent events in Staten Island and Ferguson, Missouri as well as the immediate matter of seeking a fair shake for ex-offenders who continue to have difficulty in finding employment after serving their time.
Organizer Marc Pessin noted that this is the second rally the group has called so far to bring attention to the “ban the box” movement. The phrase refers to the ubiquitous job application box where applicants are asked to self-identify whether they have ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. The group asserts that because of this, it is almost impossible for ex-offenders to secure even an initial interview, even though state law forbids employment discrimination based on criminal background alone.
The group has been advocating for the removal of that question from all County job applications, as well as for policy requiring that any contractor doing business with the County comply with “ban the box” practices. Employers and the County would still be able to ask about criminal background and do a background check after any initial interviews. He noted that 12 states and 66 other municipalities, including Buffalo, Syracuse and New York City, have already enacted similar legislation.
State Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee and County Legislator Toney Earl spoke in favor of the measure. Jaffee noted that removing the box from initial applications would provide rehabilitated offenders a fair chance to prove themselves and secure employment, results which would not only benefit the economy by producing tax paying employees, but would also reduce the number of people dependent on social welfare. She also made it clear that she still supported subsequent background checks, in order to eliminate dangerous or improper employment. Earl stated that he, too, supported the movement “100 percent” and that he has continued to press for a workable resolution that would address both fair play and employer safety concerns.
Those advocating for “ban the box” also assert that increasing employment opportunities for ex-offenders would help prevent recidivism. They state that significantly fewer ex-offenders return to a life of crime if they have secured a job. As one ex-offender eloquently outlined for the crowd, it is has been almost impossible to find employment since his discharge from prison, although he used his time while incarcerated to pursue an education and acquire job skills. He claimed that prospective employers have actually rescinded job offers once they learned of his background. He is currently starting up his own businesses in his attempts to remain legitimately employed.
After the rally the participants went inside to address the County Legislature at its regular meeting. Legislative Chairman Alden Wolfe welcomed the demonstrators, noting that the legislature had twice held over public input time in order to afford the attendees the opportunity to speak. About 10 members of the public took the podium in favor of the resolution, although some also took the Legislature to task for perceived foot-dragging or racism.
Afterward, Wolfe stated that he actually supported the resolution, and that he was confident one would eventually come to vote. However, the committees needed to work out issues arising from the county’s dual role as a direct employer as well as an employment pre-screener for towns, villages and school districts before the resolution could be presented.
County Executive Ed Day has recently addressed this issue in his column for the Rockland County Times, stating: “When I am satisfied that a system has been designed that will help people who have criminal convictions get jobs but also provides adequate safeguards for employers in county, town and village governments as well as school districts, I will propose that system to ‘ban the box.’” He asserts, however, that the resolution that has so far come before the Legislature is flawed.
According to organizer Haley Pessin, the phrase “New Jim Crow” is drawn from Michelle Alexander’s book by the same name and refers to the perception that people of color are still inequitably targeted by the criminal justice system. Pessin said they are not only arrested more often and convicted more regularly, but on average punished more severely than white persons convicted of same offenses.
Thus she draws the link between the alleged disparate number of unemployed minority ex-offenders and the greater number of those who die in police custody as the product of a mindset which results in people of color disproportionately targeted as criminals.