By Mrinal Gokhale
Every year, about 8,000 people leave Wisconsin state prisons, with even more being released from the county, according to David Liners, executive director at WISDOM, a nonprofit that helps former inmates.
“For the past 12 years, WISDOM has worked to find alternatives to prison, such as mental health programs,” he said.
Ban the Box is one of the biggest campaigns WISDOM is involved in, which kicked off its third year in Wisconsin this September. Ban the Box seeks to prohibit employers from asking applicants if they’ve been convicted of felonies on applications.
The campaign started in Oakland about 12 years ago and has expanded throughout the country.
“We’re part of national loosely affiliated groups in the U.S. that have been pushing President Obama to sign an executive order banning the box on all federal and federally contracted jobs,” said Liners.
After WISDOM and its partner organization MICAH kicked off the campaign this September, Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) became sponsors. In Wisconsin, the legislation has passed at an administrative level for the City of Madison and for city and county employment in Milwaukee. However, Liners said that the Wisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce lobbying group in Madison oppose the campaign.
“The media makes people irrationally afraid of those who have felonies, but Ban the Box gives people a fair chance to present themselves,” he said.
William Harrell serves on the Table of Saints and MICAH Empowers boards and has been involved both nationally and in Wisconsin with Ban the Box.
“Governor Walker put a block on the expungement, but we have good bipartisan support,” he said.
Harrell is a former inmate who started a Bible study group called, “Assembly of Saints” with 12 other inmates during his work release post-incarceration in 2009. The group later partnered with MICAH to do presentations for at-risk youth and AODA centers. Soon they became a nonprofit organization that helps inmates called, “Table of Saints.”
“In 2010, we banned the box on a city level, and in 2012, it passed on the county level,” said Harrell. “I know people that have since found employment in construction through the city.”
Harrell attends conferences and campaign events in Washington D.C., hoping to convince President Obama to enact legislation to ban the box through the country. A few weeks ago, he went to D.C. with a group to ask for Congressman Cummings’ signature. He considers a felony to be a “lifetime barrier to housing and employment.”
Liners believes that banning the box will help improve racial disparities with unemployment in Milwaukee.
“Caucasians and African-Americans statistically commit crimes at the same rate, but African-Americans are incarcerated more, meaning they face a lot of discrimination for conviction history,” he said.
Liners said that the state’s online circuit court access known as WCCAP is an additional challenge to the campaign, because people’s criminal histories are on the Internet. He feels employers should not use criminal history to screen out applicants, but rather have an in-person conversation about the convictions.
“Employers can ask about criminal records after making an initial offer, because many times, the conviction doesn’t relate to the job. If it does, then it’s fair to say, ‘This won’t work out’,” he said.
He added that allowing candidates to personally explain their conviction after an initial offer is easier than explaining it on paper.
“If we want people to succeed, we must provide a fair chance at employment. Banning the box doesn’t fix it all, but it’s a step.”