Ban the Box, re-entry services help ex-offenders get second chance

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COLUMBIA - Missouri is currently looking at adopting Ban the Box statewide. The ordinance is currently in effect in St. Louis, Kansas City, and Columbia. The bill, presented by Sen. Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis, passed a Senate committee in March to be sent to the floor. 

Each year, thousands of prisoners are released and reenter into society. In 2013, there were almost 19,000 prisoners released in the state of Missouri. One of the many challenges faced by these ex-offenders is the ability to get a job. Supporters say ordinances such as Ban the Box, recently approved in Columbia, lessen the obstacles of returning to the workforce faced by ex-offenders.

Columbia City Councilwoman Laura Nauser said research shows the greatest predictor of ex-offenders staying out of the prison system is whether they have a job. She said Ban the Box doesn't prohibit employers from asking about an applicant's criminal history but puts it off until later in the process so an applicant is not immediately turned away from applying.

"The task force and others found that, you know, pretty much when somebody marks that box, most of those applications are never really looked at and so that individual is really never given an opportunity to demonstrate that they have changed and that they have the necessary skills," Nauser said. 

Although there are those in support of the ordinance, some think Missouri prohibiting Ban the Box from being implemented at a city level but instead implemented at state level will provide consistency among employers. Others think that it is too much input from the government into the day to day operations of employers. 

Columbia Chamber of Commerce President, Matt McCormick, said the Chamber of Commerce had no problem with the removal of the box from applications but that the issue was with the actual ordinance. 

"The ordinance that came out far over reached just removing the box. It went to the side of you're not allowed to talk about it. which really in our feelings restricted the employers ability to discuss things with future employees," McCormick said.  

Nauser said she understands both sides of the debate, but encourages everyone to look at the big picture. 

"I think we really just need to take a good look at, you know, how can we make it, we want to be tough, we want to have people pay their debt back to society, we don't want people breaking our laws, but when they've done their time, we should give people an opportunity," Nauser said. 

Organizations such as Job Point in Columbia work to help ex-offenders have the skill sets necessary when reentering the workforce. Tyree Byndom is a recruiter for the organization and said Job Point's services are an important part of helping ex-offenders re-enter society successfully.

Prior to Ban the Box being passed by Columbia, he went to a few prisons to speak and encourage those as they prepared to re-enter society. 

"I said, 'Hey, this is how you prepare to come back to Columbia.' I said 'prepare your story, genuinely look past your criminality. You might still get, you know, told no and things like that but now you at least have an opportunity to share who you are,'" Byndom said. 

Job Point assisted more than 500 people during the 2014 fiscal year through various programs and services including training/certificate courses, community housing development and YouthBuild.

Byndom said, when it comes to issues involving ex-offenders and reentering society, it is important to remember their humanity. 

"Look at each individual as a human being. I think that does it all. If we look at each other as human beings that have families, that have goals, that want to pursue happiness, that they don't want to be bad, they don't want to be stereotyped, that don't want to have stigma, you know the golden rule. Do unto others as you want them to do unto you," Byndom said.