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Should Colleges Be Asking Students About Their Criminal History?

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The U.S. Department of Education has issued new guidelines for colleges to help them assess the merits of asking applicants for criminal justice records.

“We believe in second chances,” U.S. Secretary of Education John King said Monday. The Los Angeles Times reports the secretary held a press conference at UCLA.

“That’s why this administration is also making it a priority to help students involved in the criminal justice system benefit from the second chances an education can make possible,” King said.

“Beyond the Box Resource Guide” warns colleges that Criminal Justice Information has been shown to deter otherwise highly qualified students from applying for or enrolling in post-secondary institutions.

“It is critical to ensure that gateways to higher education, such as admissions practices, do not disproportionately disadvantage justice-involved individuals who have already served their time,” the guide reads.

Black youths are far more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system and therefore more likely to be impacted by the policy.

According to a paper released by The Sentencing Project in April, African-American juveniles are more than four times likely to be committed than their white counterparts, though they only account for 16 percent of the of the youth population. And in six states (Utah, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Wisconsin and Rhode Island), Black youths are more than 10 times likely to be committed to detention centers.

Black students commonly face harsher disciplinary action in schools across the nation. Statistics maintained by the education department’s Office of Civil Rights show that Black students account for 27 percent of school law enforcement referrals and 31 percent of school arrests.

King said the college admission process should be about opening access to higher education to as many as possible.

“Rather than asking how do we limit opportunity, we should be asking how do we broaden opportunity. How do we ensure that our educational institutions welcome all students who want to improve themselves?” King said.

A Center for Community Alternatives survey found that 66 percent of colleges collect criminal justice information during the application process, but less than half of those have written policies in place and only 40 percent have employees trained to interpret the information.

In addition, the survey notes that no data supports the notion that students with criminal records pose a greater risk to campus safety.

The DOE guide states that successful reintegration of criminals back into society only benefits the community at large and points to a research study that showed transitions out of prison to education systems “[cut] the likelihood of returning to prison within three years by over 40 percent.”

A large number of colleges and universities currently use the Common Application, which requires students to indicate whether they have been “adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony or other crime.” While some colleges make the question optional, others have developed their own applications to address the issue.

The guide suggests that institutions interested in collecting an applicant’s criminal history develop a more customized questionnaire, tailoring questions in order to elicit the desired response.

“While the reasons for collecting CJI vary by institution … there is consistency in the extent to which disparities in the justice system disproportionately impact individuals of color, especially black males, and, in turn, disproportionately require students of color to respond to questions about [Criminal Justice Information]. Additionally, questions about criminal history create a significant risk of alienating potential applicants while also unnecessarily limiting an institution’s applicant pool,” the guide states.

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