Obama 'bans the box' disclosing past crimes on federal job applications

The move has been a highly anticipated step for activists seeking to reform a system they say makes it difficult for former inmates to reintegrate into society.

Danielle Parhizkaran/The Record of Bergen County via AP
President Barack Obama speaks on criminal justice reform at the S.I. Newhouse Center for Law and Justice at Rutgers University in Newark on Monday, Nov. 2, 2015.

In a move that has been an ongoing debate for months, President Obama announced Monday that all federal agencies must now remove the box that asks prospective employees about their criminal records.

It’s not too late,” President Obama said in a speech at Rutgers University on Monday. “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. And that’s what we have to invest in. That’s what we have to believe. That’s what we have to promote.”

The move has been a highly anticipated step for activists seeking to reform a system that they say makes it difficult for former inmates to reintegrate into society. According to a poll conducted by The New York Times/CBS/Kaiser Family Foundation last February, 34 percent of men with criminal records are nonworking males between the ages of 25 and 54 – a number that has grown recently particularly among black men. The 2008 financial crisis exacerbated unemployment for those with criminal records, leaving many homeless and excluded from society.

“Prior to the prison boom, when convictions were restricted to a smaller fraction of the population, it wasn’t great for their rehab potential but it wasn’t having a huge impact,” Devah Pager, a Harvard sociology professor, told The New York Times. “Now such a large fraction of the population is affected that it has really significant implications, not just for those people, but for the labor market as a whole.”

In an unlikely occurrence, the “ban the box” move was supported by a bi-partisan alliance between Sen. Cory Booker (D) of New Jersey and Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin. While it’s too soon to predict major changes in the labor market, the move is the first widespread attempt to universalize an anti-discriminatory ban on former inmates.

But it’s not the first of its kind. Over 14 states and a handful of US cities have already passed similar laws forcing employers not to take criminal records into account until later stages in the hiring process. 

Still, some are worried the move won’t be enough. Some activists are pushing for a stricter executive order that would cover contractors.

Mr. Obama has been taking a series of small steps to improve prison reform and to promote the reintegration of former inmates into society. Last month, the United States Sentencing Commission announced it would be offering early release to roughly 6,000 federal prisoners in custody for drug offenses. The president has also supported small grants to help former inmates find jobs, learn software development, and expunge themselves of their criminal records.

Still, roughly 2.2 million remain in prison behind bars. 

“We incarcerate people at a rate that is unequaled around the world. We account for 5 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of its inmates. They are disproportionately black and Latino,” Obama said in his recent visit to Newark.

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