Florida A&M University’s law school hosted a forum Thursday for the national “Ban The Box” campaign with a panel featuring attorneys, social activists and influential people in academia.
The highly esteemed panelists included the star of the show “Judge Mathis” and social activist Judge Greg Mathis; FAMU alumnus and author Anthony Dixon; Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum; civil rights attorney Theodore “Ted” Shaw; Umi Selah, formerly known as Phillip Agnew, the executive director of the Miami-based Dream Defenders; Sharon Ames-Dennard; and Judge Belvin Perry.
“Ban The Box” is a campaign advocating for the end of structural discrimination against people with conviction and incarceration histories, primarily in the areas of hiring and housing policy, according to bantheboxcampaign.org.
FAMU President Elmira Mangum said in a released statement that “Ban the Box” is only a small portion of the social injustices that have been arising.
“I believe ‘Ban the Box’ discussions are a part of a much broader set of issues concerning social justice that students need to be aware of,” Mangum said. “We have to seek solutions through inclusion.”
The campaign asks employers to remove questions regarding conviction history from their employment applications and to adopt hiring practices that give applicants a fair chance.
Nineteen states have put in place statewide fair-chance policies, according to nelp.org. Although Florida is not one of those states, Tallahassee, Tampa and other cities in the state have adopted the fair-chance policy.
The forum discussed what they believed to be the apparent root of so many incarcerations of young people. Anthony Dixon said incarceration is a cycle that thrives off of hopelessness and lack of education.
“Lack of education leads to that hopelessness,” Dixon said. “Many young people simply give up way too early because they simply accept that way of life. They think that it is going to be the best thing for them. They look around and the see their friends, even their relatives that has gone through the same system. That cycle perpetuates itself through that feeling of hopelessness.”
The forum also tackled the issue of inequities and discrimination formerly incarcerated people face, African-Americans particularly. Judge Mathis said the denial of equal opportunity and a failed education system is to blame.
“The scenario that I paint is that you have a failed education system, you have discrimination in the corporate and education community … that’s why you have over 50,000 claims at the EEOC that have not been processed. All 50,000 of those people who are suing for racial discrimination aren’t making it up,” Mathis said. “There’s clear evidence of denial of equal opportunity. Thirty-three percent of the black men in Detroit are unemployed. You can’t tell me all 33 percent don’t want to work. Some of them might be trifling, but a lot of them are being denied equal opportunity.
"Mayor Andrew Gillum, who was being honored the same night for his service to the community at the Root 100 Gala, said people who have done time should be able to start from a clean slate.
“I believe people who have paid their debt to society ought to be given the chance to make it in our community. Finding employment is one of the biggest challenges that formerly incarcerated people face,” Gillum said.
Some of the panelists, like Sharon Ames-Dennard, believed the main way to combat and prevent the cycle of incarceration is education.
“Education was my exodus from a life of poverty,” Ames-Dennard said. “In your family systems you have to stress education. We’re dead in the water without it and it is criminal … if a child can spend 12 years in the public school system and fail to learn to read.”