By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Standing on the stage at Rutgers University amid a handful of ex-prisoners who have turned their lives around, President Barack Obama said on Nov. 2 he ordered federal agencies to stop asking prospective employees about their criminal histories at the beginning of the application process.
Obama said making it easier for former inmates to find a job would strengthen the nation. A change long sought by activists, the effort to reintegrate former inmates into society would become easier if potential employers would help.
“It’s not too late,” the president said at the Newark campus of Rutgers University that included a few ex-offenders who had turned their lives around. “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.”
Some of the steps that Obama has already taken to help ex-offenders include directing the federal Office of Personnel Management to delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process for most competitive federal jobs so applicants are not rejected before having a chance to make a positive impression.
Most federal agencies have already taken this step, but officials said new rules would be published in the new year banning requests for criminal backgrounds until the most qualified applicants are sent to a hiring manager. Exceptions will be made for law enforcement, national security and other sensitive positions
About 70 million Americans have some sort of criminal history, and 20 million have felony convictions on their records, according to government officials. Men with criminal records account for about 34 percent of nonworking men between the ages of 25 and 54, according to a poll by the New York Times, CBS News and the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Studies have found that men who reported criminal convictions were about 50 percent less likely to receive a call back or a job offer, a dynamic even more pronounced among African-American applicants.
The “ban the box” movement has drawn strong support across the ideological spectrum and in the private sector. Companies as diverse as Koch Industries, Walmart, Target and Home Depot have voluntarily eliminated the criminal history box from job applications, as have more than 100 counties and cities and 19 states, including California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, according to the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for the rights of lower-wage workers. Seven states, including New Jersey, have ordered private employers to remove the box, as well.
“We’re not suggesting ignore it,” the president said. “What we are suggesting is, when it comes to the application, give folks a chance to get through the door. Give them a chance to get in there so that they can make their case.”
The Fair Chance Act introduced in Congress in September would ban the federal government and federal contractors from requesting criminal history information until they reach the conditional offer stage. The bill would provide exceptions for law enforcement and national security positions and jobs requiring access to classified information.
The measure is being sponsored by Senators Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, and Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, and Representatives Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, and Darrell Issa, Republican of California.
And he unveiled a series of small initiatives intended to make it easier for former prisoners to find jobs and live in subsidized housing, moves that were important less for their individual effect than for the momentum they continue. Collectively, they reflect a belief that former inmates should have greater leeway to apply for jobs and housing without disclosing criminal records.
The president announced grants to provide job training for those with criminal records, including a software development program in Newark, and issued new guidance for public authorities that clarifies when arrest records can be used to determine eligibility for assisted housing. In addition, he announced the creation of a national clearinghouse to help former inmates expunge or seal records, when possible, and a program to help public housing residents under the age of 25 do the same.
The focus on helping former prisoners readjust to the outside world is all the more timely with the decision last month by the United States Sentencing Commission to release about 6,000 federal prisoners earlier than expected under reduced penalties for drug offenses. Obama, Congress and the states are also working on other initiatives to reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes.