This interview continues the recent Campbell Conversation theme of poverty in Syracuse. Weissman is the founding executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA), headquartered in Syracuse and New York City. CCA is a research advocacy and service organization dedicated to alternatives to incarceration and supporting people in the criminal justice system.
Grant Reeher (GR): Can you give me an overview of the ways that the outcomes of the criminal justice system contribute to poverty in Syracuse?
Marsha Weissman (MW): The answer is a relatively recent phenomenon that is related to what is called massive incarceration. In addition are lifetime consequences because even after you have done your time, or even if you have never served a minute in jail or prison but have a criminal record, it is extremely hard to get a job, go to college, to even volunteer. In some states, it is impossible to vote. It’s a combination of mass incarceration and the exiling of people from fundamental institutions that contribute to economic success and social success. And in communities like Syracuse, if you look at poor communities of color where policing is so pervasive and the disparities in arrests by race are so pervasive, I would guess that you probably have 75 percent of the males in that community with criminal history records, who really find it impossible to get jobs or even go to college to better themselves.
GR: In that 75 percent, what would be your estimate of violent versus non-violent crimes?
MW: It’s largely non-violent crimes. I would also look at the penal law. If you go into a garage in the middle of the day and steal a bicycle, and the garage is attached to the house, that is labeled a violent felony. So the label may exaggerate what the behavior was.
GR: How does having a criminal record affect the college admission decision?
MW: We did a national survey of the extent to which universities are now considering past criminal histories in the admissions process. We found that 66 percent of colleges around the country were asking that question. We also found that checking the box had negative connotations in the review of the application. We found that, for the most part, colleges didn’t really have any standards of review. Sometimes colleges were asking about arrests, sometimes they were asking about records that are sealed. At the end of the day, it had two effects. One is the chilling effect; it’s when people who pick up the application and see the question are deterred from applying in the first place. They have lived a life where having to answer that question means the door is shut, and they don’t want to go through that again. And the second is that colleges are rejecting people at higher rates for no good reason. There is absolutely no evidence that students with criminal records on campus pose any kind of safety threat. If you want to reduce crimes on campus, you should do something about binge drinking, frat parties and jock parties.
Last but not least, to the extent that colleges are asking people for their official criminal history records, those records are replete with errors. The Justice Department itself says that the error rate in official criminal history records is a major problem in the criminal justice system.
GR: Related to that and expanding it to hiring, an issue you’ve been involved with is called “ban the box.” Explain the problem and how ban the box is a solution.
MW: If you ban the box, you don’t ask the question (in the application). In the employment fields, the notion of fair chance hiring says that if you have made the decision that you are interested in the person, then you can inquire about whether or not they have a criminal history and then you can assess the extent to which that criminal history is relevant to the job. In considering that, you would consider a multitude of factors, common-sense factors, like does the record have any nexus to what the job is? You also want to look at how long ago the record was. Was it yesterday? Was it 10 years ago? We work with people who have very old records who can’t get jobs because of their records. You want to look at what the person has done since he or she has committed the crime and been convicted, to turn their lives around, rehabilitate themselves. So there is a whole set of very common-sensical questions that an employer is in a position to assess when you make the final hiring decision.
GR: The ban the box proposal is being considered in Syracuse. What would it do?
MW: The ban the box proposal in the city of Syracuse that we are advocating for is actually somewhat limited compared to what some other cities and states have done. It would ban the box for municipal employment and for any business that contracts with the City of Syracuse. Again, it would not preclude an employer from looking at the record; it would just move that look to the back, after you have said I think this person could do the job. We have had employers tell us that they get so many applications, that if they see the box checked they don’t go any further. They just throw it in the trash. It is one way of controlling how many applications you have to review. (By banning the box,) you are giving people the chance to present themselves, and it ties back to the original question about poverty. Syracuse is a very poor city and it has concentrated poverty, astonishingly concentrated poverty. If we are going to do something about that, you have got to tackle the stigma of a criminal record and give people a chance to join the workforce.
GR: I have sensed that the culture has changed regarding past offenders. There is less of this idea of a person paying one’s debt to society. It has become more of a permanent category, and there is a lasting stigma. Is that your sense, too?
MW: Yes, it has gotten worse, and there have been added barriers in every single domain: employment and voting and housing and civic participation. There is a glimmer of hope — and I hope that I am not being Pollyannaish about this — there is a beginning of recognition that locking so many people up is very costly in human terms and financial terms. I think that there is less recognition that even if you don’t lock someone up, it’s the criminal record that one carries on their back for the rest of their life. And it is as if we have become a society that really can’t look at people’s ability to change, let alone the over-criminalization of a variety of behaviors. It used to be that we dealt with a lot of the things we now criminalize through social institutions. (Then) we started to say that unless we arrest that person, we are not taking that behavior seriously. You put someone in a horrific prison, and in some respects they become a victim, and that moves them away from really thinking about their own behavior that might have gotten them there in the first place. I think it has been an exceptionally punitive time, and I think it is intimately tied with questions of race and class.
GR: It does seem that the combination of being poor, not being white and having a criminal record would be very, very daunting. You work with this population. Is it your impression that among that group there is a perception that things are pretty much over as far as any kind of future employment or career?
MW: I find the people we work with to be incredibly resilient and almost naively believing that they can somehow make it. But lying right next to that aspiration is the despair of having the door shut in their face day after day after day. So those two — one I think is an aspiration and the other is reality — and they lie side by side. It is really challenging to do the work because on the one hand, our job at CCA is to help people get better prepared, and support them moving into the workforce, getting into higher education or finishing high school. We do that knowing that they face inordinate structural barriers (they have) to overcome. So it’s a very schizophrenic world I think to those of us who do the work and those of us who live the lives.
GR: Tell me about some of the other initiatives of CCA.
MW: We are doing work with this fabulous coalition, Education from the Inside Out. The goal is two-fold. One is to restore higher education opportunities inside of prisons through restoring Pell grants and Tap grants that could make universities like Syracuse be able to send staff into prisons. Syracuse University used to have a program in the Auburn prison that was great. And then when Pell and TAP grants were removed, the university couldn’t afford to support it anymore. The second area is to encourage, persuade and push colleges to remove the box from their applications. And last but not least, we are doing a lot of work with what is called the “school to prison pipeline.” It’s been exciting to be in Syracuse because the Syracuse City School District has completely revamped its code of conduct to reduce the kinds of behaviors that would be subject to long-term, out-of-school suspension and is moving to implement a number of restorative interventions. How that connects to the bigger picture is that data show that suspensions are the single largest contributor to kids dropping out. If you are a young, black male and you drop out of high school, you have about a 60 percent chance of winding up in the criminal justice system.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.