In early November, the University of Michigan announced they would remove two questions related to job applicants’ criminal history and background.
These two questions previously asked if applicants have “been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony, including alcohol- or drug-related driving offenses” and if there are any felony charges currently pending against them.
The University will still ask these questions during a background check after the job applicant has accepted the position, according to the University Record.
The decision follows calls from criminal justice activists and student organizations to “ban the box,” which refers to employers that ask applicants to check a box indicating whether they have any criminal charges. In Aug. 2020, the University removed questions asking applicants about misdemeanor charges in applications for admission to the University.
University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen told The Michigan Daily in an email that the decision was made to encourage job seekers by not initially disclosing their background to the University.
“The point of it is to conduct job interviews first and select candidates that are well qualified before conducting a background check and considering whether any convictions are job-related,” Broekhuizen said. “The process helps protect job candidates from disqualification based on a non-job-related conviction, and it helps job seekers simply feel more confident about applying without upfront disclosures that might cause good candidates to never apply.”
Broekhuizen also said the University studied other employers that removed this question from their application process, which ultimately encouraged them to do the same. Broekhuizen wrote in her email that the University’s decision to remove the two questions was not a result of campus activism.
“This change resulted from the desire to assess and recognize the impact on equity and inclusion in the University’s employment process. Although there is activist activity locally and nationally in support of banning the box, the University’s decision wasn’t related to campus activism or organizations,” Broekhuizen said.
Matthew Lassiter, history professor and co-director of the Carceral State Project, has been advocating for this change since 2019 when he helped draft an open letter criticizing the University for implementing a new felony disclosure policy. The policy, known as SPG 601.38, took effect in Feb. 2019 and requires all community members to report any felony convictions or charges to the University within a week or face penalties.
Lassiter said the decision to remove the two questions is a step in the right direction, but said he was disappointed by how long it took to make the change and worries that it may not do enough to make a significant improvement.
“The University has been a laggard, not a leader,” Lassiter said. “Many other universities, many other local governments have already (made this decision) — it took way longer than it should have. There’s no justification for why the University delayed this so long.”
LSA sophomore Macey Owen and LSA senior Rachel Fagan, both members of the University’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said they would like to see how this decision may impact the felony disclosure policy.
Owen said the University’s chapter of the ACLU is examining how this policy is used and whether or not it is effective.
“We think that (this policy) is the University’s way of extending the inequities of the criminal justice system to the people who either work at the University or attend the University,” Owen said. “They probably don’t keep us safer in any tangible way.”
Fagan expressed doubt that University officials had seen the open letter and said she feels the University is not very receptive to the ACLU or other organizations’ advocacy.
“We find that it’s difficult to talk with University officials about these things. We’ve really tried to go that route in the past, and it’s literally never led to anything,” Fagan said.
Lassiter also said because the criminal justice system produces biased outcomes, background checks will inevitably be biased.
“If you’re going to run criminal background checks, people are going to get flagged, you’re going to investigate with discretion,” Lassiter said. “It’s implausible that the larger issues of racism and other kinds of discrimination that cause some people to get criminal records and some people to not get criminal records for the exact same behaviors aren’t going to get reproduced in the evaluation process.”
Lassiter said he thinks the background question empowers the University to act as a secondary criminal justice system by possibly enabling them to punish someone beyond the bounds of their state-ordered sentence.
“(The University) is not ethically justified to put itself in the place of a second-level criminal justice system, especially for people who’ve already been convicted and punished, to make a decision to punish them further by denying them employment or educational opportunities based on their criminal background,” Lassiter said.
Owen agreed that questions about an applicant’s criminal background allowed the University to doubly punish applicants. Despite this, she said she was encouraged by the change.
“I think in the past few years, the University has opted in to certain policies that create issues for people with a criminal history,” Owen said. “I think the existence of the box in the first place was the University encouraging collateral consequences, and now they’re not doing that anymore, so that’s definitely a positive change.”
Fagan echoed Lassiter’s point that the box perpetuates the biases already existent in the criminal justice system.
“The existence of the box assumes that our justice system is just and treats everyone equally and fairly, which we know is not true,” Fagan said. “There’s so much bias inherent in our justice system, so we need to ban the box because it allows us to view our justice system through a critical lens, rather than blindly trusting whoever they convicted.”
Lassiter also expressed hope that the University would begin consulting the campus community on their policies and provide explanations on why they exist in the first place.
“The University owes it to all of us and the people who are potential students and potential employees to explain its policies, consult people in their formation and base their policies on evidence rather than stereotypes,” Lassiter said. “This is a good start. It’s not enough.”
Daily Staff Reporter Christian Juliano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.