Federal jobs for felons: Why 'ban the box' could soon be a thing of the past

The Obama administration is moving to "ban the box" on federal job applications that asks about criminal history. 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck during a forum on criminal justice reform, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, in the Old Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. At right is John Walsh, U.S. Attorney, District of Colorado.

As a small part of a larger effort to reform the justice system, the Obama administration is pushing to remove questions about criminal history from federal job applications.

Also known as "ban the box," the rule would prohibit federal government from asking question about criminal history until later in the employment process, when there has been “a conditional offer of employment.”

The “ban the box” idea has been gaining momentum in the recent months, fueled by the concerns of criminal justice reformers who have long held that “the box” systematically discriminates against felons, denying them opportunities that would help them integrate back into the society. A February 2015 poll by The New York Times/CBS/Kaiser Family Foundation found the men with criminal records make up 34 percent of unemployed men between 25 to 54. And the most affected are African American and Latino men, the poll found.

“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,” President Obama said last November, in announcing his executive action to ban the box. “And that’s what we have to invest in. That’s what we have to believe. That’s what we have to promote.”

The new rule was published online Friday, and the public will have 60 days to submit comments before a final rule is issued.

If enacted, the rule would likely impact about 100,000 applicants seeking jobs based on hires made in 2015 by the federal government, said Beth Cobert, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management said, The New York Times reported.

There are exceptions however; the rule would not apply to jobs that primarily relate to the intelligence community, national security, or law enforcement.

Criminal justice reformers have long advocated for changes that would see more ex-offenders granted opportunities that will allow them to re-enter their communities after paying for their crimes. Between 70-100 million people have criminal record histories in the United States. And because criminal records are now easily available online, 9 in 10 employers are likely to conduct criminal background checks. Two studies conducted by Devah Pager examined employment audits of in Milwaukee and New York City, both found that the chances of getting a call back reduced by 50 percent if the applicant possessed a criminal record.

Criminal records can be a life sentence to poverty,” said Rebecca Vallas, director of policy at the liberal advocacy group Center for American Progress, Fusion reported.

"If they're restricted from job opportunities and housing, it makes it more likely they're going to return to criminal activity just to provide sustenance for themselves and their families," Jeremy Haile, the federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project, told the Christian Science Monitor’s Henry Gass.

Efforts to reform the justice system have been receiving widespread bipartisan support. Since “ban the box” movement started, 19 states including Georgia, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, and Ohio, as well as up to 100 cities have taken measures to ban the box. Some companies, including Wal-Mart and Target, have banned the box.  

The justice reform effort has been moving ahead in other areas too. On Monday, the Obama administration called on states to make it easier for felons to obtain state-issued IDs. Lack of an ID is often a hindrance to ex-offenders in applying for jobs and opening bank accounts. The federal government as well as other states have been taking steps to reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders, in an attempt to reduce the high number of people who are incarcerated. 

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