FROM PRISON TO PHD CANDIDATE AND POLICY ADVOCATE
Noel Vest, a Washington State University PhD candidate and board member with Civil Survival, is urging lawmakers to consider passing the Fair Chances in Higher Education bill (SB6582). The bill would give justice-involved individuals a fair shot at college admission by eliminating questions about prior criminal convictions. Noel explains that “[i]f you would have asked me 10 years ago if I could ever have dreamed that I would be where I am today, I would have said only in my dreams.” You see, 10 years ago Noel (a Vancouver, Washington native) was incarcerated at Lovelock Correctional Center in northern Nevada for 7 years following a drug-related conviction. Near the end of his sentence he was pretty sure that the world had passed him by. The day he was released in 2009 he asked his dad if he would drive him to a Washington State community college to inquire about enrolling. That decision changed his life.
Noel had two goals. He wanted to improve himself as a person and he wanted to become a drug and alcohol counselor. When he explained to the staff at a local college that he was an eager prospective student just released from prison, he was greeted with a cold shoulder and an attitude of resistance. They basically pointed to a computer and told him to figure it out. Over the next few hours he got through the application and the FAFSA forms. All the while he was just waiting for the question that he was sure was going to derail his effort, “Have you ever been convicted or arrested for a felony?” Luckily, the question never came, and the school accepted his application. Although most college students take this experience for granted, questions about prior convictions are barriers that can derail the hopes of formerly incarcerated people.
Now, many years later, Noel Vest is a published author, a PhD candidate and an advocate for the formerly incarcerated and other marginalized groups. Noel is hoping that, with the passage of the Fair Chances bill, everyone who follows his path from prison to college has the same experience he did. Noel emphasizes that “[i]It is important to remove as many barriers as we can for formerly incarcerated individuals that are trying to turn their lives around.” He adds, “This bill is really about second chances. We know that a degree in higher education dramatically reduces recidivism, which makes our communities safer and allows formerly incarcerated individuals to attain good jobs that allow them to provide for their families.”
He explains that the legislation makes sense given the huge investment that Washington state made in 2017 for secondary education opportunities inside of prisons through the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (Senate Bill 5069). This Fair Chances in Higher Education bill will make the transition smoother for individuals that may want to transfer from a community or technical college inside a correctional facility to state colleges and universities when they are released.
Vest explains how the idea for this bill took shape three months ago when he attended that the National Conference for Higher Education in Prison in Dallas, TX. While there, he attended a panel with four advocates: Leyla Martinez, Stan Andrisse, Annie Freitas, and Syrita Streib-Martin. Each were from different parts of the country, and each had introduced this type of “Ban the Box” legislation in their respective states. As he listened, he became inspired. The more he heard of their successes, he knew that the same type of advocacy was needed in his home state of Washington. He asked the panel if they would send him their research and copies of the bills they had written.
Over the next few days he drafted a bill and started emailing lawmakers looking for sponsors. Eventually, Vest traveled from Pullman to Olympia where he found himself in the office of Senator Rebecca Saldana. Within minutes she agreed to have the bill introduced as soon as she could. The following week, the bill was introduced by Senator Chase and heartfelt testimony was given by Mr. Vest’s allies at Civil Survival. Civil Survival is an advocacy group for issues on re-entry and restoration of rights for formerly incarcerated individuals. Tarra Simmons, Dr. Chris Beasley, and James Jackson each made compelling arguments about how this bill is a necessary next step for returning citizens to flourish in their communities. Within two days the bill had passed through the senate Higher Education and Workforce Committee. It now awaits a vote on the senate floor.
The only negative comments Vest has heard about the bill are related to public safety. Will this bill make our state university campuses a more dangerous place to live? As a trained researcher, Vest points to a comprehensive literature review by Bradley Custer, PhD Candidate at Michigan State University. Part of that review discusses a study at the University of North Carolina showing that less than 2% of crimes on campus were committed by students with prior felony convictions and that crime rates did not differ significantly between colleges with a criminal history box on the application and colleges without the box. While there is the strong need for further research in this area, the empirical evidence that does exist suggests that having a criminal history box on a college application does not increase public safety on college campuses. This research is likely the reason why the United States Department of Education asked colleges and universities to voluntarily remove criminal history boxes from their applications in 2016. The University of Washington recently removed the box on their applications for these reasons as well.
In Washington, a bill like this would likely not have been possible without the work of others in the state. Layne Pavey and others have pushed Ban the Box legislation for employment and recently passed an ordinance in Spokane. Vest explains that “[t]he work of Ban the Box advocates on the employment side has really paved the way for legislation like ours to be possible.” If the bill passes, it will provide hope for a new beginning to the many justice involved individuals who want a chance to find their own paths to success.