Expanding college opportunities for prisoners in California

DegreesofFreedom2015_ReportCoverLast week was an exciting one for proponents of the expansion of college opportunities for people who are currently incarcerated or who have criminal records.  Two reports were released that propose strategies to break the cycle of recidivism, promote public safety, and de-escalate mass incarceration by opening up post-secondary educational opportunities.  It is fitting that both reports come at a time when America is reflecting on the events of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, fifty years ago, and envisioning where the momentum of Black Lives Matter will take us.  It is the intersection of an historic civil rights struggle, the human rights movement that confronts “mass criminalization” and the racial divide in the U.S. today.

The Stanford Criminal Justice Center and the Warren Institute at the UC Berkeley School of Law issued a report from the Renewing Communities Initiative, Degrees of Freedom: Expanding College Opportunities for Currently and Formerly Incarcerated Californians It was released just days after the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) in cooperation with the Education from the Inside Out Coalition (EIO Coalition), issued its report, Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition, the subject of an earlier post on March 4, 2015.


Each report reviews the college system within its respective state, California and New York, yet both reports make findings and offer recommendations that have national implications.  In Degrees of Freedom, Part I provides a background on the higher education and criminal justice systems in California.  Part II explains why California needs this initiative and Part III presents the landscape of existing college programs dedicated to criminal justice-involved populations in the community and in jails and prisons.  Part IV lays out concrete recommendations on steps California should take to realize the vision of expanding high-quality college opportunities for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals.   

The two reports complement one another.  Each provides a different focus on the same problem – a need to expand access to education for people with criminal records to increase the chances of reintegration.  In Degrees of Freedom the focus is on currently and formerly incarcerated.  In Boxed Out the focus is more broadly on the barriers faced by all people with criminal records in higher education.

Both reports agree on the need to expand college opportunities.  A college education strengthens economies, changes lives and renews communities.  According to Degrees of Success, failure to provide access to college for people with criminal records “is an expensive and unsustainable oversight that does a disservice to thousands of potential students, their families and all our communities.”

A different focus is presented by each report with regard to recommendations that identify the changes that need to be made.  In Degrees of Freedom the focus is on developing collaborations between education and criminal justice administrators to open up initiatives, and create buy-in.  Indeed that is important.  But what about those colleges that have created hurdles to admission for people with criminal records?  Calling for their collaboration is not enough.  They have refused to eliminate criminal history screening in their admissions practices.  While the public higher education system in California does not screen for criminal convictions, more than half of all college in the U.S. engage in this insidious practice.  As identified in Boxed Out, all SUNY campuses engage in criminal history screening in admission, which results in 2 out of every 3 applicants who check “Yes” in the felony question box being excluded by “felony application attrition.”

There are colleges that have shouldered the responsibility of opening the doors to higher education for people with criminal records.  They have recognized the human right to higher education and that education is a key to transforming lives.  They do not ask about an applicant’s criminal history on their applications for admission. The City University of New York (CUNY) and California’s public higher education systems are good examples. We applaud and support their efforts.  They embrace a mission that accepts all students who seek an education.

But what is to be done about those college administrators that turn a deaf ear to the call for change?  We have made terrible mistakes over the past four decades with our criminal justice policy, creating “mass incarceration” and “mass criminalization.”  It becomes that much more difficult to recover from the devastation that these policies have wrought, when institutions of higher education employ policies that compound the problem and widen the divide in America racially, ethnically and economically.

When Boxed Out was released several reporters questioned SUNY administrators.  A SUNY spokeswoman stated that they did not dispute any of the report’s findings.  Another SUNY police official acknowledged to NPR that they don’t have – and aren’t aware of – any data showing people with criminal history records are more likely to commit a crime on campus than someone without a record.  Despite these answers, these same administrators justified the use of criminal history screening in admissions because “it’s risk management.”  An outspoken college administrator from Texas is more brazen in her justification for a criminal history screening:  “By requiring criminal background checks of all admitted students, colleges and universities will send a message about the type of students they want and the types of behaviors they expect on campus.”

Some call it risk management.  Some call it sending a message.  As we suggested when we put together a presentation entitled “Unchaining Civil Rights,” you can call it what you want to, it’s still Jim Crow.

It will take more than collaboration to open up access to colleges and eliminate the criminal history box on college applications.  It will take organizing, litigation, and legislation.  Just like the old Jim Crow, it will not yield without a demand.

When we look back at the segregation of 

our public schools during Jim Crow, it 

is an outrage.  We look back comfortably 

with the distance of time and deplore it as 

a moral evil.  It is a stain on the American 

story.  Some might say, ‘but I didn’t have 

anything to do with it.’  In the same way,

future observers of our time will look back 

and say it is a shame that we allowed the 

use of the criminal history box on college 

applications to happen.  In light of racial 

disparities in our criminal justice system,

it is just another way to promote segregation. 

We all bear responsibility for that.

—  Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Director,  The Schomberg Center                                                  for Research in Black Culture

Alan Rosenthal

Alan Rosenthal is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney who served fifteen years as the Co-Director of Justice Strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives. He has written and lectured extensively on reentry and reintegration, and for the past five years has focused on the collateral consequences of criminal convictions on access to higher education.

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