BRIDGET DOWNES / THE STATESMAN
The State University of New York system, which includes Stony Brook University (above), is no longer requiring students to indicate a criminal history on enrollment applications. BRIDGET DOWNES/STATESMAN FILE

Convicted felons, with the exception of sex offenders, will no longer have to disclose their criminal history on any State University of New York enrollment application.

A vote from the SUNY Board of Trustees guarantees this change as of July 2017, according to a memorandum from SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher. The memorandum went on to say that 62.5 percent of students did not finish their SUNY applications because they felt uncomfortable disclosing prior felony convictions.

“I think it’s a good plan in the perspective of allowing students who have made a mistake in their past or have moved on and rehabilitated, to move on and apply for college,” Dean of Admissions Judith Berhannan said. “On the other hand, residential institutions should collect that information in other ways. … If the information is not flagged in the admissions process, it should be collected in other ways.”

This new policy, called “Admission of Persons with Prior Felony Convictions,” also states that universities can screen for criminal histories post-admittance for programs such as campus housing, clinical and field experiences, internships and study abroad.

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Those students who wish to not participate in any of the programs listed will be free to keep their felony convictions private.

SUNY is one of 25 institutions to have signed the “Fair Chance in Higher Education pledge” initiated by the Obama Administration and the Domestic Policy Council in June 2016. The agreement requests that schools refrain from asking about criminal history on applications.

Stony Brook University junior business major, Ali Zaidi, thinks that the new policy is a positive change because it gives convicted criminals another shot at a normal life.

“This is a way they can get a second chance in life because they would be more comfortable applying,” Zaidi said.

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Some students are not convinced. Sophomore health science major Izzy Matthew thinks that universities have the right to ask applicants if they are convicted felons for the sake of campus safety.

“If they’re convicted obviously that’s their business but I think that it should be something that the school should be aware of,” Matthew said.  

For others, it is hard to determine the correct approach for universities when dealing with applicants who are convicted felons.

“One point is good because some criminals aren’t that bad depending on what they did,” freshman undecided major Stephanie Cevallos said. “But at another point, it’s kind of dangerous because if they are a bad criminal, they shouldn’t be admitted.”

However according to a 2007 study, the assumption that criminal history screenings make campuses safer has no basis in evidence.

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“…[T]here is no statistically significant difference in the rate of campus crime between institutions of higher education that explore undergraduate applicants’ disciplinary background and those that do not,” read a study by M.J.V Olszewska, included in a report by the Center for Community Alternatives.

A survey of 273 institutions conducted by CCA in collaboration with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found 90 percent of schools viewed any felony conviction negatively and 59.6 percent of admissions personnel who reviewed applicants’ criminal history received no training on interpreting criminal records

The survey also found that the use of Criminal Justice Information in admissions decisions disproportionately affects applicants of color.

According to the report, sometimes the labels given to convicted felons do not match the significance of their crimes.

“In New York State, for example, the theft of a bicycle from a garage attached to a house is classified as a violent crime even if the theft did not involve actual violence or any interaction with another person, and did not penetrate the actual home itself,” the report said.

Stony Brook University adjunct sociology professor Jane Ely, Ph.D., agrees that labeling causes unfair treatment.

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Under the Rockefeller Law, the possession or sale of any drugs, no matter the size, was considered a felony and usually resulted in harsh prison sentences. Only in 2009 was some of that law amended, Ely, who teaches Social Deviance and Sociology of Crime, said.

“It was the harshest drug law in the nation but you still have people in jail from those laws,” Ely said. “It isn’t fair.”

From Ely’s perspective, eliminating the question on the application allows everyone to pursue higher education, which is becoming increasingly important in obtaining employment. She believes that criminals should be able to move on after paying for their crime.

“When you are labeled an ‘ex-con,’ that is a very sticky, strong label,” Ely said. “[But] once you have served your sentence, you should be able to become a productive member of society and therefore not be afraid to apply for college courses.”

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