The Box Must Be Abolished

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This spring, Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) will be once again be asking Princeton’s administration to take a stand in favor of increased access to higher education by ceasing to consider the criminal histories of prospective students in making admissions decisions.  The initiative at Princeton—the Admissions Opportunity Campaign—is part of an emerging campaign to abolish “the box” (ATB) taking place across the country at a number of colleges and universities, including Harvard, Brown, NYU, Tufts, George Washington University, the University of Washington, Middlebury, Puget Sound, and the CUNY and SUNY systems.  As things currently stand, roughly two-thirds of colleges and universities screen applicants for prior involvement with the American penal system.  For Princeton and many other institutions, the question appears on the Common Application as follows: “Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or other crime?”

To many, this may seem like a perfectly reasonable question to ask of college applicants—I say that it is not.  By placing additional scrutiny on the candidacy of applicants with criminal histories, American colleges and universities discourage and often prohibit qualified students from bettering themselves and their communities at huge social and economic cost to the country, all the while failing to improve public safety on their campuses in any discernible way.

It would seem that questions such as the one on the Common Application exist because university administrators believe that by learning about an applicant’s criminal history, they will be able to know something unique about how he or she might behave on campus.  This belief is, simply put, erroneous.  There is an utter absence of evidence to suggest that asking questions about criminal history during a college’s admissions process makes a campus any safer.  In fact, the empirical academic work that has been done on the subject demonstrates that there is no statistically significant difference in the rates of crime on the campuses of institutions that ask such questions as opposed to those which do not.[1]  This may come as a surprise to many.  From childhood we are taught by our parents, our communities, and society in general that people who are convicted of crimes are “bad”—a stigma that follows formerly incarcerated people for their entire lives, making it difficult for them to obtain education, employment, the respect of their communities, and even self-respect.  The truth of the matter is that people make decisions based upon environmental incentive structures more so than they do based upon “who they are” in some implausible, a-contextual sense. People are adaptive social creatures, not machines that pump out “good” or “bad” actions based upon their make.  College is a context that creates personal incentives that tend to lead to outcomes that society has deemed to be good; poverty is a context that creates incentives which often leads to outcomes that society has deemed to be bad.

Apart from the fact that criminal acts and people’s decisions in general are largely (and in an important sense, entirely) contextual, it is simply the case that the majority of American citizens commit crimes at points throughout their lives.  However, the level of scrutiny that our system of punishment applies to people is such that the most marginalized members of society are punished at vastly disproportionate rates, usually for acts (such as drug related activity, convictions for which account for around half of the current U.S. prison population) that are committed with consistent frequency throughout out all strata of society.  Mass incarceration in the United States today is out of control: Sixty-five million Americans—that’s one in four adult U.S. citizens—have a criminal record.  How can a university such as ours that claims to act in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations actively affirm the labels created by a system that suppresses a quarter of the country’s citizenry in a profoundly arbitrary and discriminatory fashion?  How can we think that the question whether a person has been incarcerated tells us anything about how they are different from other applicants apart from that they are probably black or brown, poor, and marginalized?

While many believe that a person’s involvement with the American penal system is a reasonable indicator of whether that person will be a good student, community member, or person, it simply is not.  If anything, it would seem that students who have been incarcerated have a greater incentive to take their educational opportunities seriously; at Rutgers, for instance (one of the few schools for which such data is available), formerly incarcerated students earn on average higher GPAs and graduate at higher rates than the general student population.  This should not come as a shock; people grow and change differently in different environments, education empowers, and a person’s occasional refusal to obey rules imposed upon us by the powerful individuals and groups of past generations of Americans—something virtually all of us have done, and something that has been done by virtually all of the great men and women in history whom we respect from Jesus to Socrates to George Washington to Martin Luther King—in and of itself is no indication of whether an applicant will be a good student or a good member of the campus community.  Empirical data, critical reflection upon criminality, and simple common sense all tell us as much.

What is truly tragic is that while the box does little or nothing to improve campus life, it stands in the way of millions of Americans as a barrier to higher education.  This fact has profound social implications.  When someone is convicted for breaking the law, we expect that he or she will receive a sentence that is reflective of the nature of the crime, and that after whatever debt to society they have ostensibly accrued has been paid off, he or she ought to re-enter society and the formal economy as a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen.  Such a system of punishment is on my view highly flawed, but whether or not we subscribe to the system just described, we can likely agree that it is how the current criminal justice system is supposed to function and that it makes reasonable sense.  What doesn’t make sense is that we have structured our institutions in such a way that all but prohibits formerly incarcerated people from becoming law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.  We deny formerly incarcerated people equality of opportunity through restrictions on access to education, employment, loans, and housing—without a job, without education, how are we to expect that people who have spent time in prison might get back on their feet?  By denying formerly incarcerated people access to the means by which one builds a better life, we deny them access to a future in mainstream society.  In this sense, every conviction can amount to a life sentence.

By removing barriers to higher education, we can begin to turn this miserable state of affairs around.  People who have the benefit of a college education are more likely to be employed and less likely to be reliant upon public assistance, they enjoy better physical and mental health, and positively impact their families and communities.  Not only does higher education improve the lives of formerly incarcerated people and members of their families and communities, but it also provides individuals with the opportunity for a good life in mainstream society, thereby changing the incentives on which they act and steeply reducing the likelihood that an individual will commit a crime.  We see that each level of higher education attained by a formerly incarcerated person exponentially reduces the probability that they will return to prison. Whereas the recidivism rate for formerly incarcerated individuals nationally is 43.3%, that rate plummets to 13.7% for formerly incarcerated individuals who earn a two-year associates degree, 5.6% for those who earn a Bachelors degree, and less than 1% for those who earn an advanced degree.[2]

College-educated citizens tend to lead better lives (economically, socially, and personally), contribute positively to mainstream society, and serve as role models in their communities.  It seems to me that college is one of the best places for formerly incarcerated people to be.  By removing barriers to education for the 65 million Americans who have had prior involvement in the criminal justice system, we can take a powerful step towards empowering marginalized individuals, healing families and communities, increasing civic awareness, improving the legitimate economy, and reducing crime.  Our university has the power to affect change by choosing to eliminate the box from the undergraduate application process (it is worth noting that there is no such box to be found on Princeton’s graduate school applications) and to issue a public statement in favor of access to education for formerly incarcerated people. Although removing this barrier at Princeton may only directly affect a handful of applicants, we stand to affect greater societal change by sending a clear message that we believe in the power of education and that we condone neither mass incarceration nor the systematic criminalization of identity. Ending the cycles of excessive punishment that devastate marginalized communities is in the interest of all Americans, regardless of political affiliation; we hear the cries for fundamental change ringing out across the political spectrum from the ACLU to Koch Industries. As a leading institution in this country, our university has a unique opportunity to set an example that will be noticed; by doing so, we take a strong step towards extending freedom and opportunity to millions of Americans who have never truly had either. As members of the Princeton community and citizens of a country that has been devastated by the effects of mass incarceration, let us call upon our University to demonstrate leadership by taking a bold stand in favor of access to education by abolishing the box in the nation’s service.

Joel Simwinga is a senior from Independence, Kansas. He is majoring in the Philosophy Department and can be reached at simwinga@princeton.edu.

[1] Center for Community Alternatives. The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered. ii (2010).

[2] Fine, M., Torre, M.E., Boudin, K. et al. Changing Minds: The Impact of College in a Maximum Security Prison. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 2001