President Obama “Bans the Box” at Federal Government Agencies
by Derek Gilna
One of the many challenges experienced by the more than 630,000 people released from prison each year in the United States is securing employment. And one of the biggest hurdles ex-prisoners face when seeking jobs is the box on most employment applications which asks whether or not they have been convicted of a crime. Late last year, with the urging of many prisoners’ rights advocates – including the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which publishes Prison Legal News – President Obama announced an executive order “banning the box” for federal job applicants.
Obama made his announcement on November 2, 2015 at a drug treatment center in Newark, New Jersey. Joined by U.S. Senator Cory Booker and Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka, Obama also unveiled $8 million in federal grants to improve opportunities for released prisoners reentering society, including more funding for public housing. Further, he called on Congress to pass ban the box legislation.
In a speech at Rutgers University, President Obama said, “There are people who have gone through tough times. They’ve made mistakes. But with a little bit of help, they can get on the right path. That is what we have to invest in, that is what we need to believe in.”
The White House released a statement expanding on Obama’s comments, noting that “Advancing policies and programs that enable these men and women to put their lives back on track and earn their second chance promotes not only justice and fairness, but also public safety.”
Three days prior to Obama’s announcement of an order banning the box on the federal level, HRDC had sent him a letter outlining the nature of the employment problem for ex-prisoners.
“An estimated 70 million Americans ... have an arrest or conviction that will show up on a routine criminal background check. This creates a serious barrier to employment for millions of workers, especially in communities of color hardest hit by decades of overcriminalization,” wrote HRDC executive director and PLN editor Paul Wright. “Often a former prisoner’s criminal record has no relation to the type of job he or she is seeking, but because ex-offenders do not constitute a protected class, employers are free to discriminate against them and deny them employment based on their criminal record alone.”
Nineteen states and more than 100 cities and counties have banned the box; seven of those states extend such policies to both public and private-sector employers – Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island, plus Washington, D.C.
Under President Obama’s executive order banning the box, applicants for federal government jobs (but not federal contractors) will not have to indicate whether they have felony convictions on the initial job application. They can, however, be asked about their past criminal record later in the hiring process; ban the box policies are designed to ensure former prisoners are not unfairly excluded from employment opportunities at the application stage.
As noted by Obama, the federal government “should not use criminal history to screen out applicants before we even look at their qualifications.”
A congressional bill to ban the box, the Fair Chance Act (S. 2021), which would extend the policy to federal contractors as well as federal government agencies, was introduced by Senator Booker in September 2015.
“Fair hiring practices help ensure that people who have served their time can reenter the workforce without continuing to be punished for their past mistakes,” said U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “All Americans deserve the chance to earn a living and make a positive contribution to their communities. These reforms would ensure that they have that chance and help to restore hope and opportunity to those who have served their time and paid their dues to society.”
Sources: www.huffingtonpost.com, www.newsmax.com, www.nytimes.com, USA Today, www.nelp.org, HRDC letter to President Obama (Oct. 30, 2015)
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