Efforts to change how Virginia public universities ask about prospective students’ criminal histories spread to JMU

By Liesl Graber, contributor

“Have you ever been convicted of a crime? Check yes or no.”

About 66 percent of former inmates who see that on college applications won’t do either and, instead, give up filling out the rest of the application, said Stanley Andrisse, executive director of the Baltimore-based program From Prison Cells to Ph.D. “It sends the message: we don’t want you here.”

Now a student group at JMU is working to change that, and JMU is tweaking how it asks about criminal histories of prospective students — all an offshoot of broader efforts in Virginia and across the country.

Earlier this month, the campus group Students for Sensible Drug Policy hosted a “Ban the Box” panel at JMU’s Festival Conference Center as part of the group’s advocacy to convince JMU to change its admissions policies and remove the box from the application for prospective students.

Experts on the panel included Andrisse, Daniel Barrows, chair of Valley Justice Coalition, Michael Walsh, JMU’s dean of admissions, and Virginia state Del. Lashrecse D. Aird, D-Petersburg.

Aird has pushed legislation in Virginia to stop public colleges form including the “have you been convicted of a crime” box on admission applications. In January, she introduced House Bill 2471, the bill that has become one of Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s focuses. It would ban public universities from specifically asking about or denying admission based on an applicant’s criminal history. The bill stalled in a House subcommittee.

Other states, such as New York, have blocked public universities from asking about applicants’ criminal histories.

Aird said two factors tend to predict success for people who leave the prison system: meaningful employment and quality of life.

“What are we doing to prepare these people for being a part of our community?” Aird asked. It’s about getting credentials into the hands of all Virginians, she said, by exposing inmates to education in prison and then giving them a chance to pursue education once they leave. “Skills, knowledge, and experience—that’s what they need. That’s what they can get through higher education,” Aird said.

JMU admissions has never told a student who checked that box “a flat-out no,” said Michael Walsh, dean of admissions. He shared instances where students were encouraged to delay admission a few semesters to give the students a chance to show their life was in order. Knowing criminal history allows admissions to ask out-right, “Is this the right place to be while you put your feet on the ground?” Walsh said.

JMU’s approach

Some stories of admissions are encouraging to Walsh, JMU’s admissions dean.

He shared about one student who spent 22 years in jail before pursuing a career in social work.

“Just because certain things happen doesn’t mean you can’t come to college,” Walsh said.

Walsh’s main complaint about “the box” is the lack of consistency across Virginia. Even the wording of the question itself is inconsistent. Some applications ask, “have you ever been accused,” while others ask “have you ever been convicted” or “have you ever been arrested.” Depending on the wording, an individual who would say “no” to the last two would have to say “yes” to the first.

“It’s complicated,” Walsh said.

Sexual assault and mass shootings further complicate the discussion when figuring out who to let on your college campus, Aird said, hitting a mark that raised further questions from students in the audience.

One student asked how Title IX violations, in particular, would be affected by policy changes regarding “the box.” She said she was concerned about potentially bumping into sex offenders on campus.

Walsh said JMU has threat assessment teams, which look at each individual case according to the category each crime falls into.

The question would not be removed entirely, Walsh clarified. Instead of being part of the initial admissions process, applicants’ criminal records could play a part in later conversations about safety issues and how to best help the student succeed on a college campus. Walsh did not confirm or deny JMU Admissions’ intentions to relocate “the box” at this time.

Instead, Walsh called for more open dialogue, saying the policies throughout the state school system are inconsistent, even within the same infraction, which makes his job difficult.

“We need some clarity here,” he said. “We need to be in dialogue about this so we’re all on the same page. That’s what this is about.”

JMU, as a public university, runs background check on its students each semester anyway, Walsh said, specifically to look for Title IX and drug-related infractions.

Addressing the concerns of safety, Andrisse told the audience that asking about an applicant’s criminal record has not been proven to affect safety on college campuses.

“As far as asking the question or not, the colleges that ask are no more safe than the ones that don’t,” Andrisse said. “There is no empirical data to support that.”

“What are we afraid of?” Aird asked, jumping off Andrisse’s point. “What has you so scared that compels you to leave the box on there?”

Part of a broader effort

The Ban the Box national campaign began with employment. So far, 34 states have implemented policies to prevent criminal history from being part of job applications, either in the public or private sector, according to the National Employment Law Project. Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe used an executive order in 2015 to remove criminal history questions from state employment applications, but the General Assembly so far hasn’t followed suit to change state law.

In January, the Virginia Senate voted 24-16 for Senate Bill 1199 — bill to prohibit the state from asking about criminal records on employment applications  but the measure got stuck in the House.

Hannah Procell, the panel moderator and advocacy fellow of Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s national organization, called the box a form of double jeopardy. She said former inmates serve their time but are punished every time they apply for a job or for college. The box creates yet another barrier for moving forward, she said.

In Virginia, anyone convicted of a felony loses the civil rights to vote, serve on jury duty, run for public office, become a notary public and carry a firearm for life. According to the Constitution of Virginia, only the governor has discretion to restore these civil rights. In February, Governor Ralph Northam restored civil rights to 10,992 of the half-million disenfranchised felons living in Virginia—those who meet certain criteria after being released from supervision.

“Virginians who have repaid their debts should be able to return to society, get a good job, and participate in our democracy,” Northam said in a statement at the time.

The “should” is easier said than done, however, with a 27 percent ex-offender unemployment rate and a 23.4 percent recidivism rate in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

A lot of the risk factors for homelessness, mental health issues, and serving jail time look the same, Barrows said. For instance, often, a person didn’t complete high school and had a difficult home situation in childhood, he said.

“The problems started a long time ago, and society hasn’t been working very hard to get them on their feet,” Barrows said.

However, Barrows said the most cost-effective way to “get them on their feet” is through a college education.

College provides knowledge necessary to succeed in skilled professions, and benefits go beyond a transcript, he said. Attending college serves as an indicator to potential employers that a person is willing to jump through hoops to accomplish a goal, Barrows said, while there’s also an aspect of identity transformation that happens on college campuses.

College education has been linked to reduced recidivism, Andrisse said.

He said 40 to 60 percent of inmates who “step out of prison, step right back in.” However, if they “step one foot on a college campus, even for one semester, that percentage drops to the teens.” By completing an Associate’s degree, that figure drops to 13 percent. A Bachelor’s to 5 percent. A Master’s degree—“basically gone,” he said.

“You don’t even need a degree to see improvement,” he said.

Andrisse credited the lifestyle change that comes with going to college. “You’re in a new environment with milieu opportunities. That does something,” he said.

Second chance success

To make the issue personal for those JMU students attending the panel, Andrisse shared his own journey from a prison cell in Missouri to earning a Ph.D. in physiology.

Just after completing college, Andrisse was charged for drug trafficking and sentenced to 20 years in prison. After undergoing a drug treatment program, his sentence was reduced to 10 years. Following his release, Andrisse pursued higher education as a way to turn his life around.

Andrisse said he was one of the lucky ones who had a mentor to encourage him to press on.

When he saw the box on graduate school applications, Andrisse said he felt a “visceral fear” that put him right back in the place in his life he never wanted to be, which he said helped explain why 66 percent of people in the same position stop filling out the applications.

He was accepted to St. Louis University with the help of a former professor who vouched for him. Andrisse completed an MBA and Ph.D. in physiology. Now he’s a tenured professor at Howard College of Medicine and teaches as an adjunct at John Hopkins University, while also working to push the Ban the Box campaign and pave the way for future college students with similar stories.

Andrisse said college admissions offices and employees hold a lot of power in helping former inmates succeed in life.

“Admissions are the gatekeepers to professional society,” he said. If these people are kept from getting an education, he said, “we’re missing out on talent. We’re missing out on contributors to society.”

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