WASHINGTON, D.C.– Today, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) launched a national initiative to eliminate barriers to educational opportunity for applicants who have been stopped, detained or arrested by police.  The first phase of the initiative seeks information from 17 colleges and universities that include inquiries on their applications regarding contact with the criminal justice system, including arrests that did not lead to conviction, sealed or expunged youthful offender records, or pardoned records.  

“All people deserve a fair chance to access the educational opportunities offered by our nation’s colleges and universities,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “However, inquiries regarding stops, detentions and arrests pose unnecessary barriers for vast numbers of African Americans given the racial disparities that we see across the criminal justice system.  Colleges and universities should provide access to educational opportunity for all people, regardless of whether or not they have been subject to mere contact with a police officer.”

The Lawyers’ Committee’s preliminary review of the application process utilized by colleges and universities revealed that the information sought by the schools had no legitimate educational justification and no bearing on whether a student would succeed in the classroom. Rejecting or evaluating college applicants based solely on information regarding stops, detentions or other contact with the criminal justice system has a disproportionate impact on African-American boys and men, who are more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped, detained and arrested by police. A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that black males were imprisoned at a rate six and a half times higher than white males.  

The Lawyers’ Committee sent inquiries to 17 schools across seven states, including Auburn University, Auburn University-Montgomery, the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Mobile in Alabama; Florida International University, Florida State University, and the University of North Florida in Florida; Clark Atlanta University and the University of Georgia in Georgia; Catawba College in North Carolina; The Citadel in South Carolina; Louisiana State University in Louisiana; and Emory & Henry College, Hampton University, Virginia State University and Virginia Tech University in Virginia.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits recipients of federal funding, including most colleges and universities, from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.  This includes the obligation to avoid policies and practices which have a racially disparate impact on students of color.

“In light of the documented racial disparities and implicit bias evidenced at every stage of the criminal justice system — from referrals to arrests to convictions — it is especially troubling that this might serve as a barrier to higher education,” observed Brenda Shum, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee.  “More importantly, disclosure of this type of information has not been shown to promote public safety on our college campuses.”

According to a 2015 report issued by the Center for Community Alternatives, it is “well-documented that racial disparities infect the entire criminal justice system, from policing to sentencing.”  The Center for Community Alternatives recommends that colleges and universities fulfill their commitment to equal opportunity and contribute to a stronger and safer future for the country by admitting and supporting otherwise qualified students.

The Lawyers’ Committee is committed to promoting fair and educationally sound policies and committed to addressing barriers faced by people with criminal backgrounds. This national initiative deals with barriers faced by those who have been arrested, stopped or detained by police.  The Lawyers’ Committee applauds the hundreds of colleges and universities across the country that avoid the practice of collecting and relying on information related to criminal justice involvement in the context of college admissions.

Individuals who believe that they have been denied or discouraged from pursuing educational opportunities at colleges and universities because of inquiries into stops, arrests and detentions in the admissions process can contact help@lawyerscommittee.org.

About the Lawyers’ Committee

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. Formed over 50 years ago, we continue our quest of “Moving America Toward Justice.” The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law, particularly in the areas of fair housing and community development; employment; voting; education; environmental justice; and criminal justice.  For more information about the Lawyers’ Committee, visit www.lawyerscommittee.org.