The 70 million justice-involved Americans—individuals with arrest or criminal records who have been socially, politically, and economically starved by our failing criminal justice system—deserve a seat at the table where justice reform is being discussed. Their anecdotal experiences, combined with data, serve to illustrate the systematic failures of our criminal justice system and the collateral consequences that create barriers to employment, housing, and public benefits. Their voices have an important potential to impact policy.
Higher education is an important area for reform. The U.S. Department of Education’s recently released report, Beyond the Box, Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals, describes college and university policies and practices that have limited access of the justice-involved to higher education. The report noted the importance of campus safety, which is vital given the rise of sexual assault on college campuses, while also ensuring that blanket criminal background policies do not discourage qualified candidates from applying in the first place. The report includes many recommendations, options, and examples of current commended practices at schools, including:
- Delaying the request for, or consideration of, criminal justice information collected until after an admission decision has been made;
- Giving students the opportunity to explain their criminal justice involvement and preparedness for postsecondary study;
- Offering targeted academic and career guidance to students with past justice involvement; and
- Using on-campus employment opportunities to help formerly incarcerated individuals create an employment history.
Removing barriers to higher education for our justice-involved population has the potential to enrich the classroom experience, as these students “are able to bring a unique perspective to classroom discussion with their peers.” Moreover, professions that require a college degree can benefit from having justice-involved individuals, who have personal and practical knowledge of the criminal justice system, in their workforce. For example, as teachers and counselors justice-involved individuals can provide insight on how to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline. As attorneys, justice-involved individuals have the potential to represent people whose shoes they’ve walked in, and to inform the legal community of the pitfalls of criminal statutes and procedure.
States such as Ohio have already acknowledged the importance of incorporating the voices of justice-involved individuals in their criminal justice reform efforts. House Bill 130 called for the formation of an Ex-Offender Reentry Coalition that serves as a guiding hub for expanding and improving reentry efforts across state and local agencies and communities. The bill requires the coalition to have a member that has been convicted of one or more felonies or misdemeanors in Ohio, and be “willing to share the challenges or barriers that have occurred as a result.” Only when we listen to the challenges and barriers faced by justice-involved individuals can their experiences be elevated into effective policies.
The Department of Education’s recommendations would help justice-involved individuals move into professions that place them at the table of justice reform. Institutions of higher education should step up and pull out their chair by implementing these recommendations. By removing barriers to education for the justice-involved, we remove barriers to justice reform.