On April 5, 1986, Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery was raped and murdered in her dormitory by a fellow student who was in the process of robbing her. He had entered the dormitory through unlocked doors, a common occurrence in the days before campus crime statistics were reported. There was a national outcry against the lack of information that allowed this kind of crime to occur, and the Clery Act allowed students to be more knowledgeable about crime on their campuses through required publication of an annual security report, maintenance of a public crime log, disclosure of crime statistics, and warnings to faculty and students about serious criminal threats under the act. This act has helped keep American college campuses safe through publication of crime incidents on campuses. The underlying principle behind the act stresses the need for the public dissemination of information about crime and should be vigorously maintained in all respects on our campuses today.
Nearly thirty years after the murder of Clery, college campuses are still no strangers to crime, both violent and nonviolent. While responses to tragedies like the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting have made huge strides in preventing mental illness-related crimes, these events also underscored the fact that crime and the protection of students needs to be taken seriously at universities. This is why colleges should require applicants to reveal their criminal histories- to protect the general student body from violent criminals with histories of robbery, rape, murder, and other dangerous tendencies.
Statistics show that most crimes are committed by repeat offenders. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, 77% of people in a sample of 405,000 prisoners released from incarceration were arrested for another offense within five years of their release for their most recent offense. According to the same study, 84% of inmates who were age 24 or under on their release (and therefore closest to college age) were arrested for a new offense in the subsequent five years. While there are not statistics in the study on re-incarceration due to the long nature of trials in the criminal justice system, this data still clearly show criminal history is a fairly good indicator of whether convicted criminals are likely to be re-arrested.
This is why “the Box” (a colloquial term for the box that must be checked to indicate a criminal record) should not be abolished in college admissions. Colleges have a right to know if any admitted students have criminal histories, because it is statistically likely that many of these students will be arrested again. While overall crime on a college campus may not necessarily increase if “the Box” is abolished, all it takes is one incident where a person with a criminal history falls back into violent behavior to create an outcry. Many former criminals may, at their core, be good people. However, there are most definitely former criminals who are not, and they should not be allowed to endanger the safety and peace of a university community.
Precautionary measures are prevalent in the modern world, and there is no reason that the university should be an exception. Many employers ask job applicants about criminal history. Sex offenders are forced to register in databases so residents of their neighborhoods know whom they are living near. Removing “the Box” will not make the rest of a former criminal’s life easy. A university degree will make no difference on a job application that lists a conviction; the applicant will be likely rejected anyway. This is the reality of the world, and while it is harsh, these practices are designed to keep the larger community safe. As “the Box” alone is insufficient to help former criminals reenter society, its proponents are wrongly focusing on a relatively unimportant issue; it would be far more beneficial to former criminals if potential employers were to refrain from asking about criminal records. Similarly, as the overwhelming majority of jobs lack a residential component, convicted criminals pose far less of a threat to coworkers than they would to fellow students.
However, employers are justified in asking for criminal history in that they want to protect their employees, and the broader underlying principle must be considered in light of other institutions as well. The common good must be considered relative to the good of former criminals, and the reality is that many criminals will not change their behavior. Some will properly take advantage of opportunities to re-assimilate into society, but others will do harm to innocent people. This is clearly unacceptable and is a dangerous consequence of making criminal history irrelevant. The tragedy of this policy is that while it would certainly help some people who truly do deserve a second chance, but with the broad application proposed, it would likely do more than good and leave innocent lives as collateral damage.
Activists say that having college applicants report their criminal history on college applications creates a racially biased admissions system, perpetuating a cycle of poverty that disproportionately affects minorities. I could not agree more on this point. However, I believe that this speaks more to general injustice in the criminal justice system that a flaw in the application process itself. It is commonly known at this point that the police disproportionately target African-American men, and that African-Americans are the most incarcerated American racial demographic by percentage of the population, especially with regards to drug possession charges and violent crime.
This is a big problem to solve, but if racial bias in the justice system is corrected, I see no problem whatsoever with attempts to prevent the matriculation of criminals. After all, the majority of convicted serial killers and highly violent criminals are white males. Universities need a way to screen applicants to make sure juvenile offenders especially, who often have lighter sentences for violent crimes, are not welcomed into a campus where they are likely to do harm again. We do not need another Jeanne Clery to die because of good intentions. The roots of bias in the criminal justice system need vetting to make sure that they are working for all Americans, and then we can examine whether universities should admit those with violent criminal records.
Notice the addition of violent– the type of offense should also be taken into account as a genuine consideration as to whether the applicant will be a genuine danger to the student community. The university should be able to evaluate the amount of risk it is willing to tolerate relative to certain criminal offenses. If an administration decides it is willing to tolerate drug offenders, that is its prerogative. There is good reason to do so; many university students have used drugs and simply have not been caught. Therefore, admissions offices should carefully consider applications that indicate a criminal history. There may often be no reason to automatically preclude qualified candidates with a record of nonviolent crime.
If universities are unwilling to admit any students with a criminal record, there are also alternatives to the traditional residential, campus-centered collegiate experience that can help break the crime-drive cycle of poverty. Distance learning is becoming increasingly popular with recent technological advances, so students with violent criminal pasts can obtain college degrees without ever setting foot on a university campus. Remote lecture attendance through video chat is already implemented by many universities, including Princeton. Modern innovations have made it entirely possible for students at risk of violent behavior to learn remotely. This technology can be used to help students with criminal records obtain degrees, thereby contributing to equality of opportunity and helping fight the cycle of poverty while preserving the safety of students on campus.
Other alternatives to the traditional four-year college can accommodate former criminals with far less risk to the public at large. Community colleges, where students are not residential and thus are less at risk of being harmed by fellow students, could adopt programs that allow people with criminal histories to get their associates’ degrees and even transfer credits to partner universities. States could also mandate removal of criminal history on applications through attached additional funding to universities. While this would subject public universities more to this policy than private ones, private universities would still be affected to a degree if they wanted said funding. If the school wants the additional funding, it can remove “the Box,” and if they do not want to, they simply have to accept that they will not get that additional funding. This policy would also be on a state-by-state basis, to make sure that the political climate and the people are accepting of the idea. Not all universities should be forced to make this change involuntarily, but local governments favorable to this form of political education reform certainly have the liberty to provide incentives without compulsory measures.
Criminal convictions should not prevent someone from improving his or her life after a prison sentence. However, the general safety of the population needs to be considered, especially in the emotionally and mentally challenging environment of the American university. Those who have committed violent crimes previously have a high rate of re-incarceration within five years of release. While it is admirable to give those in prison a second chance at an education, and I support that as a way of lowering crime rates and eradicating poverty, it is not right to put the lives of law-abiding students at risk. Eliminating racial bias in the criminal justice system and increasing fairness will allow better indication of an individual’s risk to the community, and his or her emotional fitness for university life, which is important to the entire community. Universities have a right to know whom they are letting in their doors. What they do beyond that is up to them.
Valerie Wilson is a freshman from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. She is tentatively majoring in the History Department and can be reached at email@example.com.