For the past six months Justin Tolston, a 19-year-old University of Nebraska-Lincoln junior, has been interning at the Nebraska attorney general's office as a legislative research assistant.
Technically, he shouldn't have even been granted an interview for the job.
At 16, Tolston had pleaded no contest to a shoplifting charge in juvenile court. It's a record most employers can't access, and one that he had no legal obligation to acknowledge on any job application. So when he came to the part in the application that asks applicants to check a box if they have a criminal history, he left it blank.
But the state's top law enforcement office checked Tolston's background and discovered the charge.
Ordinarily, that would have disqualified him from even an interview. So Tolston appealed to Brenda Council, a state senator, and she helped him get not only an interview, but ultimately the job.
In turn, she introduced legislation that, if passed, would make Nebraska the fourth state to 'Ban the Box,' removing the criminal history box from initial application forms for public employment.
'Ban the Box' is a slogan for a nationwide initiative, launched independently in various states and cities, to enact legislation that would prohibit public employers from disqualifying ex-offenders based solely on their criminal history.
"As long as you're checking that box, your application doesn't stand a really good chance," said Susan Burton, one of the founders of All of Us or None, a San Francisco-based advocacy nonprofit that coined the catchphrase 'Ban the Box.'
Erasing the box is not about sweeping past mistakes under the rug or creating loopholes for ex-offenders, supporters of such bills say; it's simply about giving ex-offenders a chance to speak for themselves instead of having the box represent their whole story.
More than 71 million criminal records were in state repositories at the end of 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics' latest data. Accounting for the population size and the possibility of multiple crimes per person, advocates say one in five people has some kind of criminal history.
Every year approximately 9 million Americans leave jail after short-term incarcerations, and roughly 735,000 are released from state and federal prisons after serving more substantial time, according to the National Reentry Resource Center. More than two-thirds of those prisoners are re-arrested and more than half of the estimated 735,000 return to prison. Fewer than half of the released inmates find a job.
Advocates cite a direct link connecting those statistics. "Lack of employment is a major predictor of recidivism," said Sarah Walker, founder of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition.
Eradicating "the box," Walker said, reduces barriers for job-seeking ex-offenders and keeps them out of taxpayer-funded prisons, all the while being a "fair and responsible and pragmatic policy" with no obvious negative impact on the community. Fiscally, no box may mean savings as city and state governments that would normally pay for background checks for potential employees would actually save money, having to run fewer checks.
The states that have banned the box on initial public job applications include Hawaii in 1998, Minnesota in 2009 and, this year, New Mexico.