Friday, March 13, 2009

New Mexico: "Ban the Box"

Remember those great-looking Boy Scout Calendars from back in the day? With the classic Norman Rockwell paintings? All-American stuff! Couldn't get more American than that. What you might not know is that the company in St. Paul Minnesota that published those calendars was quite an operation itself.

Hubert Huse Bigelow was the CEO of Brown and Bigelow and enjoyed a measure of fame for his meticulous management style and his tendency to wear unnecessarily "cheap" suites. When the Sixteenth Amendment created the federal income tax, Bigelow simply ignored the law and became the first target of government prosecutors. He was thus convicted on June 24, 1924, fined ten thousand dollars and sentenced to two years in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.

Of course, prison life was not exactly Bigelow's gig. A guy like him needed "protection." That "protection" eventually came in the form of a new cellmate, one Charles Allen Ward, who was already four years into a ten-year sentence for violating the Harrison Anti-Narcotics Act. Ward was released on parole in 1925 and, when Calvin Coolidge pardoned Bigelow in 1928, Bigelow showed his gratitude and made his former cell-mate operating manager, then Vice-President, of Brown and Bigelow. He and Ward then proceeded, as a matter of company "policy," to hire hundreds of ex-convicts to produce those darling Boy Scout Calenders, playing cards and this and that. Franklin Roosevelt granted Ward a pardon in 1935 and Ward ran the company after Bigelow's death, until 1959. Bigelow and Ward, the former cell mates, both died as millionaires.

It is just the kind of story that might not have ever been told had the mindset behind "the box" been around.

The Associated Press reports New Mexico State Sen. Clint Harden has "a long history of hiring felons" and he wants to prohibit employment applications for government agencies from asking job-seekers if they have ever been convicted of a felony. Harden has no problem with the use of such inquiries in face-to-face interviews. Nor does he have a problem with "background checks." He just thinks that those who have been in trouble with the law in the past should not be so easily dismissed, because they answered the question truthfully and checked a box indicating their answer was "yes." Harden's legislation to this end has passed in the State Senate 27-8 and is "pending" in a House committee. The "ban the box" bill is SB 459.

A 1953 newspaper piece on Charley Ward said the following:
Would you want to employ a man labeled as an ex-convict? Neither would most people. But Charles Ward does just that. [He] concentrates on hiring men on parole. [He] has long believed that those who need the real help in life are the convicts. When a man has served one-third of his prison sentence, he may be eligible for parole. But his chances of making good, of rebuilding his character, depends heavily upon his opportunity to make a living. [So] Ward has given over 500 jobs in his own firm to paroled convicts, and helped them to become normal citizens. Less than one out of a hundred have ever slipped back into lawlessness. And never yet has Brown and Bigelow suffered a loss from one of its half thousand parolees!

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