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Councilwoman champions 'Banning the Box' 

Spearheaded by LaWana Mayfield, job application question regarding prior convictions debated in city committee

Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield considered banning the box long before she thought about running for office.

Three years ago, Mayfield served as a community organizer for local nonprofit Grassroots Leadership. Most of her work involved immigration reform and researching alternatives to incarceration, of which employment is one. When she became a councilwoman in 2011, Mayfield partnered with the Charlotte School of Law to help ex-offenders find employment with the city by eliminating a "yes" or "no" question on job applications that asks whether an applicant has been convicted of a crime. Evidence shows that simple question often deters ex-offenders from applying — and if checked "yes," employers from considering them.

"Once you've served your time and you're attempting to get your life on track and be a positive influence on society and change whatever situation that led you to being incarcerated, you can't do that if you don't have access to employment. Not just employment, but gainful employment," said Mayfield, whose district encompasses parts of west Charlotte.

"Banning the box," a popular name used in cities across the country given to the issue, would not bar an employer from accessing someone's past. Such records would show up later in the hiring process in a standard background check, giving the applicant an opportunity to explain the charge or conviction and any time served.

Steps have already been made toward eliminating the box. In late February, City Council decided 6-5 to move the proposal to an economic development committee. Upwards of 100 people, including students and faculty from the law school, business owners, city employees and ex-offenders, attended. But the job is hardly finished. Mayfield and students from the law school will work to push the referendum through committee so council can vote on whether to "ban the box" for good.

Former Charlotte School of Law student Isaac Sturgill speaking at the Feb. 25 council meeting. - COURTESY OF THE CHARLOTTE SCHOOL OF LAW'S CIVIL RIGHTS CLINIC
  • Courtesy of the Charlotte School of Law's Civil Rights Clinic
  • Former Charlotte School of Law student Isaac Sturgill speaking at the Feb. 25 council meeting.

Councilman Michael Barnes voted against sending the measure to committee.

"We have the right and responsibility to know who we hire, and I think that having our staff screen people appropriately is a good idea," he said.

Barnes, an attorney, brought up a town in Minnesota that "banned the box" only after the state legislature granted municipalities immunity from litigation. In other words, if an ex-offender employed by the city commits a crime on the job, that city isn't legally responsible for his or her actions. Such protection doesn't exist in North Carolina, which could present a financial burden on Charlotte taxpayers, Barnes said.

But proponents of the measure say recycling offenders through the prison system takes taxpayers away from the community — and only hurts Charlotte's already high unemployment rate.

"I think that's a valid issue, and I think there are a number of ways to address it that go ... beyond the 'ban the box' issue," Barnes said, though he refused to elaborate.

The Charlotte School of Law's Civil Rights Clinic took up the "box" campaign six years ago, after an unaffiliated group working on the cause dismantled. The clinic has worked since to present its findings to City Council, encouraging members to follow other cities, including Philadelphia, and ban the box for good. Along the way, they found an ally in Mayfield.

"Ultimately what we found, and what makes common sense, is that the single biggest factor from re-offending is getting a job," said assistant professor and clinic supervisor Jason Huber. "The [question] ... deters a lot of people from filing a job application."

Research shows 97 percent of those incarcerated in Mecklenburg County — about 3,800 people at any given time — will return to the community, but half are at risk of being rearrested within a year because they are released without resources, such as shelter or employment. A study conducted in Indiana showed that if employed, ex-offenders' recidivism rate dropped from 45 percent to 29 percent if he or she didn't have a GED or high school diploma. The number went as low as 18 percent for individuals with degrees.

Though an employer can't deny an ex-offender work solely because of his or her background, it's still a determining factor in who gets chosen for the job. Research shows an employer is twice as likely to deny a prospective employee with a record a job than an applicant without a record.

Though a majority of those incarcerated are minority men, Mayfield said she doesn't consider banning the box a racial issue.

"To me, it falls more into a class issue," she said. "Those who have access to an attorney [during the charge or conviction] are less likely to do the time than someone who doesn't have that access. Your life should not be over because of a mistake."

Students in the Civil Rights Clinic assisted in the reporting of this story.

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