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State Senate votes to extend ban-the-box reforms to higher education

Roman Battaglia
Delaware Public Media

Eight years ago, Delaware prohibited public employers from asking job applicants about their criminal records before the first interview.

Last week, Senate lawmakers passed a bill to break down similar barriers for people with criminal records seeking advanced degrees, prohibiting Delaware’s colleges and universities before making admissions decisions.

Haneef Salaam with the ACLU of Delaware’s Campaign for Smart Justice told a Senate committee last week that applying to college can be daunting for thousands of Delawareans with criminal records.

“Questions inquiring about past convictions or arrests are enough to discourage people from applying to higher education for fear that they will be prejudged for their mistake," he said, "rather than being given an opportunity for a better life and access to the second chance they deserve.” 

Senate Republicans generally agreed a criminal record alone shouldn’t disqualify applicants, but Senator Colin Bonini argued that schools should be privy to that information earlier in the process.

"I certainly understand that we don't want to say, 'you did some bad things in the past and you don't get to participate,'" he said, "but I think schools should have that information prior to making an admissions decision." Bonini cited possible pushback from students' parents as a reason for his wariness.

The bill’s sponsor, state Senator Marie Pinkney, noted the bill would allow schools to ask accepted students about their criminal records and make decisions about the student’s participation in campus life based on that information, including whether the criminal history is recent and whether the student has shown signs of progress.

“We are removing the barrier of admission from the process," she said, "but we are still allowing the schools to have this information, and we’re still allowing schools to make judgment calls on what to do with that information, but also asking them to take a couple other pieces of information into consideration before making that judgment call.”

She also noted that schools could offer counseling to students with criminal histories, including career counseling for students considering a field that requires licensure — including nursing — and could exclude people with criminal records.

Pinkney added that schools could still ask applicants about stalking or sex crime convictions — offenses that are particularly common on college campuses.

The University of Delaware and Delaware Technical Community College do not currently ask applicants for criminal histories; Delaware State University, Wilmington University and Goldey Beacom College do.

One Republican – State Sen. Ernie Lopez (R-Lewes0, a longtime University of Delaware employee – voted in support of the bill.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.