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Ex-Offenders Face Barriers to College

HOST 1: Ex-convicts who get a college degree are less likely to go back to prison. But many former prisoners encounter a big obstacle in the college application process. That’s because some colleges are worried about the effects of having felons on campus.

HOST 2: Not all universities ask about a criminal records, but all 64 institutions in the State University of New York system do. Ariel ­­Ritchin reports.

Applying to college took extra effort for Yvonne Wilson. She was convicted three times for selling drugs, starting in the 1980’s. And her rap sheet includes dozens of arrests. She was 49 when she started applying last year and, she was nervous.

Yvonne: I always wanted to go back to school, but I didn’t think I could because I was older, education had changed, and I was feeling a little intimidated.

On the plus side, she had taken classes while she was doing time, and got an associates degree with honors from Nassau Community College, which is part of the State University of New York system. But she wasn’t sure that that would help her get admitted to another SUNY college to complete a bachelor’s degree. Because she had a mark against her on her application.

Yvonne: I checked the box.

The box on the SUNY application is next to a question that reads, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” A recent study by a prison reform group suggests that nearly two-thirds of ex-cons give up because of it. That leaves just over a thousand every year who submit applications. Wilson says checking the box opened the floodgates … the requests for information poured in.

Yvonne: Six reference letters

From employers, professors, and medical professionals.

Yvonne: Go get fingerprinted.

Which is one of the requests that cost her money.

Yvonne: Then I had to take off from work.

For interviews with a review committee.

Yvonne: You know, like the parole board.

She told the members about her crimes. And then (PAUSE) she waited.

Yvonne: The process was months. It took months. Because every time I sent them something, they asked for something else.

Patricia Warth says that whole process makes some felons just give up.

PATRICIA: every step of the way it becomes harder and harder and harder until you actually feel like, “They don’t really want me here.”

Warth is an attorney for the Center for Community Alternatives –  alternatives to incarceration. She was part of the team that did the study that found that two out of three ex-cons give up because of the box. But if they finish the application, Warth found, they’d be just as likely as anyone to get in. Warth has a string of adjectives she uses to describe the process.

PATRICIA: incredibly burdensome, sometimes impossible, and // quite often, // demoralizing and stigmatizing.

The box has been on SUNY’s application since 1998. Each of the schools in the system of has its own review committee, and they all implement the policy differently. An ex-con who applied to all of them would have to provide 38 different documents. Some schools ask for information on arrests that didn’t lead to convictions. And some ask courts to provide information that doesn’t exist because the applicant never appeared in court.

Legally, the schools can’t reject applicants just because they checked the box. But they can if they have safety concerns. And they do, according to Paul Berger, the Deputy Commissioner for SUNY Police.

BERGER: We’re not talking about people with petty crimes, with misdemeanors. Felony offenses are the highest-level offenses that our society has.

He says the screening also weeds out applicants who aren’t ready for life on campus after prison.

BERGER: College campuses are unique. There are a lot of support services but they’re not always the same kind of support that someone who’s been recently incarcerated, that they might need.

The SUNY college ex-con Yvonne Wilson got into doesn’t even have a campus. She’s taking classes from SUNY Empire the state’s online college.

Yvonne: I’m not seeing anybody. I’m sitting at my house at my computer.

Robert Stewart thinks the questions the schools are asking students about criminal history are nothing more than “security theater.”

STEWART: The idea that we look like we’re doing something, when in fact it may not have any real tangible effect on security.

Stewart is a researcher at the University of Minnesota who’s looked at applications at 1,400 four-year colleges for a study. He wants his report to bolster the conclusions that others have found, that the questions are worthless. But he’s having a hard time finding any studies to refute because:

STEWART: Students with prior criminal records // We don’t have any data to show that they affect campus safety at all.

SUNY says it’s never studied how effective its policy is. Student Yvonne Wilson thinks the schools should stop putting the box on their application. She’s going to Albany next month to lobby for a bill that would force them to remove it. She prepared for that trip by meeting with another advocate for reform who played the role of a state senator.

Richards: The safety of private citizens, that are tax paying and they want to make sure that their children are safe on campus.

Yvonne: If you look at the statistics and you see what colleges have this box on this application versus those that don’t, the crime rate is no different // And a person that comes home from prison that gets educated, is less likely to reoffend.

A similar bill last year never made it out of committee. But Wilson is hopeful. Last fall, New York’s Attorney General got three private colleges to stop asking applicants about arrests.

Ariel Ritchin, Columbia Radio News.


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