It’s rare to have a political revelation in the bread aisle. But two recent trips to the grocery store gave me a sense of a needed change in Alabama’s criminal justice system.
Both Winn-Dixie and Publix carry Dave’s Killer Bread, which comes in bags with a logo of a guy with a mustache and a mullet holding an electric guitar. But the most interesting thing about this bread isn’t the branding — it’s the story behind it.
Dave’s Killer Bread makes a conscious effort to employ people with criminal convictions. One in three of its employees has a criminal background. “We believe that everyone is capable of greatness, and we have seen firsthand the powerful transformation that is possible when someone is given a second chance,” the company’s website says. “Our goal is to serve as an example to other employers that hiring people with criminal backgrounds can strengthen not only their workforce and company culture, but their local communities as well.”
This is powerful stuff — not to mention that I ended up buying a loaf and making some of the best toast I’ve ever had.
It was a timely reminder that Alabama lawmakers are examining the state’s rules about job application processes in response to a nationwide nonpartisan movement to “ban the box” — that is, to remove the criminal history checkbox on job applications. Alabama would do well to move in this direction.
Some of our neighbors already have this policy. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order last year removing the criminal history question from applications for state jobs. Louisiana and Tennessee followed suit this year. In all, 24 states have some form of “ban the box” policy. Nine of them forbid private-sector employers from making the inquiry at the initial job application stage as well.
Let’s be clear: These policies don’t mean employers can’t ask about applicants’ histories. It just means they get to build a first impression based on qualifications in the person’s resume. Study after study shows you get better candidates when you let them explain in person any previous mistakes they may have made.
The “ban the box” movement isn’t just the product of criminal justice reform groups. It also has the support of some of our country’s largest employers, including Home Depot, Target, and Wal-Mart. All of them realize we’re better off when we don’t screen people out of the hiring process with a single question on an application.
Nobody benefits from permanently locking people out of meaningful employment. Once people have served their time and paid their debt to society, they ought to be able to rejoin the economy and contribute in a meaningful way. When their job applications are rejected out of hand due to a previous run-in with the law, people can become alienated, frustrated, and hopeless.
This same logic also applies to another change Alabama lawmakers need to make: updating the law to allow more people to regain voting rights. Certain crimes permanently disqualify people from voting, but amazingly, Alabama has no clear list of which offenses actually count as these “crimes of moral turpitude.” The Legislature should end that uncertainty in 2017.
People with criminal convictions can, and must, re-enter society after fulfilling the terms of their punishments. They should be allowed to work and vote and make meaningful contributions to society. Some simple changes to our laws can help reduce recidivism and smooth the extremely difficult path facing people seeking to start a new life after prison.
Getting re-entry policies right isn’t always easy. But “ban the box” and voting rights restoration are two policy changes that would make Alabama safer and more prosperous.
Companies benefit when they hire from the fullest range of people in the applicant pool, and we all benefit when people are more invested in their community’s future. That’s why the legal barriers to re-entry in Alabama should become toast — and not the delicious kind.
Stephen Stetson is a policy analyst for Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of congregations, organizations and individuals promoting public policies to improve the lives of low-income Alabamians. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.