When applicants to one of the State University of New York’s (SUNY) 64 campuses apply for admission, they are required to answer question 20a: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” The question has proven to be a major hurdle for men and women with criminal records, with three of five of such applicants dropping out of the application process before reaching its conclusion. Those who persist are subjected to increased scrutiny, which may include extensive background checks and personal interviews.
But that practice is coming to an end.
On September 14, the system’s board of trustees voted to remove the question from all applications for enrollment, which will go into effect beginning July 2017. The vote follows a year-long debate on the subject, during which the student assembly passed a resolution advocating the end of the practice. Applicants may still be asked about their criminal histories when applying for housing or to participate in clinical, field, or study abroad programs.
With 460,000 full-time students, SUNY is the largest state university system in the United States. Advocates hope that other schools and university programs will follow SUNY’s lead and “ban the box” on their own applications.
“Today’s policy revision is a milestone achievement for SUNY,” system chancellor Nancy Zimpher says in a statement, “one that positions our university system as a leader in what has become a national movement to expand access and educational opportunity for individuals with a felony history.”
A 2010 study by the nonprofit group Center for Community Alternatives found that roughly two-thirds of colleges nationwide ask applicants about their criminal history—sometimes including misdemeanors.
“This is the first public education system in any state to reverse course and reject the box,” Alan Rosenthal, an attorney for the Center for Community Alternatives tells the Marshall Project. “Hopefully other states will do the same.”
There are many hurdles that former prisoners face as they attempt to successfully reintegrate into society. Restrictions on housing, licensing, employment, and even voting keep these men and women from being contributing members of their communities, and heighten the chances that they eventually return to prison. By making higher education more accessible to these individuals, SUNY is opening the door for new opportunities and new lives for those who sincerely want to improve themselves and to serve those around them.
Prison Fellowship’s Second Prison Project seeks to change perceptions of those with criminal records and to remove systemic barriers that unfairly keep them in a “second prison” of punishment long after the debt for their crimes has been paid. To learn more about the Second Prison Project, and how you can be a part of creating second chances for these men and women, visit http://secondprison.org.