Higher Education Needs To Rethink Screening Applicants For Criminal Records

Last week, for almost forty five minutes, a genuine feeling of optimism overwhelmed me as I chatted with Marsha Weissman, the executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives, although you wouldn’t have known it by the tenor of the conversation we were having about the latest fad in the college admissions arena – screening applicants for criminal records.


In the wake of the recent spate of shooting deaths of students by students on college campuses across the nation, it was inevitable that college administrators were going to have to do something to show they were taking action against the growing problem of college students who decide all of a sudden to use deadly force against their fellow students. But the route many of them have chosen to take involves a change in the application process that takes into account a student’s criminal record prior to rendering an admissions decision, a resolution that ignores a hard truth-most of the students who have gone on killing sprees at our nation’s colleges in the last ten years have had no criminal record of any kind. Maybe colleges concerned about students with the potential to cause great harm to other students should be screening for mental illness instead.

“College admissions staffs are really unaware of the racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” Ms. Weissman said. But I found it difficult to believe that collegiate admissions officers, tasked with turning homogenous applicant pools into freshman classes that exhibit a certain degree of geographical, socioeconomic and racial diversity, would have blinders on when it came to understanding how our unequal justice system frequently maligned minority youth. “Admissions staff…” Weissman proffered, “are unaware that criminal histories often have very inaccurate information in them.”

Two college applicants from different states, convicted of the very same offense at age 15 could end up with entirely different criminal history records. One could be saddled with an adult felony conviction and the other could end up with no adult criminal record at all. How could an admissions officer possibly fairly compare the two applicants to determine which, if either, posed a future threat to campus safety?

The Use Of Criminal History Records In College Admissions   

In my mind, the greatest impact these admissions policies are likely to have is at the community college level , the very place where someone who has faced tough circumstances during their youth is likely to turn for higher education. But despite the modern realities the center for Community Alternatives research had illuminated about the state of affairs on our college campuses these days, I was still pretty optimistic—the report Ms. Weissman had co-authored not only called for an end to the practice of screening candidates based on criminal history records, but laid out very specific ways in which those institutions who insisted on continuing this method could utilize the information more responsibly.

Listening to Ms. Weissman, I was struck for a second by a guilty pang as she went on about the pervasive racial inequality within the criminal justice system, especially for juveniles, a sudden attack of conscience that threatened to dowse my hopeful mood. Like so many middle class African Americans these days, I have succumbed subconsciously to America’s obsession with morality, one that desires desperately to pigeonhole people into either a “good” or “evil” category, as if individuals do not grow, evolve and change. As if I am unaware that this same obsession with morality is at the heart of racial antagonism on which much of America’s history and modern culture rests.  

So I asked her what her suggestion would be to African Americans concerned about the screening of college applicants for criminal records. “Issues of criminal justice,” Ms. Weissman said, “should be fully embraced by African Americans with the wherewithal to push for policy change.”

Even this eye opening tidbit I came across while scrolling back through the CCA report after the interview-more than 100 million Americans now have criminal histories-didn’t put much of a dent in my upbeat demeanor. It wasn’t until a few minutes later, when I started looking around for some ancillary information to put together this piece that I almost stopped breathing. 

Of the 2.3 million people in American jails, 806,000 are black males.  African-Americans--males and females--make up .6 percent of the entire world's population, but African-American males--alone--make up 8 percent of the entire world's prison population

“Hoodlum” by TaNehisi Coates      The Atlantic

8 percent of the entire world’s population? How the hell was this even possible?  How can we as Americans support a system that continues to manufacture exceptions for some and take exceptional measures against others? How can we continue to turn a blind eye when the privileged bend the laws, or simply pretend they don't exist?

It was right about here that my genuine feeling of optimism totally evaporated.

I don’t know what it is I have to do about our prison system and this tragedy of epic proportions, but I have to do something. Advocating today that our institutions of higher learning take down this additional barrier they are erecting to keep out our most motivated youth, the ones who are obviously trying to turn their lives around by getting a college education, has got be a start in the right direction.  

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.