Last week, President Obama announced he will issue an executive order to ban “the box” — the question that asks applicants to disclose whether they’ve been convicted of a crime — on applications for federal employment. When he does, the President will join 19 states and over100 cities and counties, including Delaware, Georgia, Massachusetts, Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia, in an effort to provide a second chance to people returning to their community after serving time in prison.
In today’s tough job market, a checked box on an employment application often offers employers a simple method to narrow down saturated applicant pools. Unfortunately, this creates significant barriers to former prisoners getting jobs, no matter their qualifications. One study found that employers were 50 percent less likely to offer interviews to white applicants with criminal records than those without them. The effect was even more significant for African Americans, who were 64 percent less likely to be interviewed if they had a criminal record.
Defining applicants by their past mistakes without considering their qualifications and potential is unjust and unnecessary. Having served their prescribed sentences, former prisoners have repaid their debt to society. Yet the stigma of their criminal conviction continues to punish them and, in many ways, permanently relegate them to a second-class status.
Excluding people with criminal convictions from the job market also has implications for society at large. Today, 70 million Americans have a criminal record — nearly one-third of the adult population. The loss of so many potential workers drains our economy. And when unable to make a living, former prisoners are often forced to rely on family members or social welfare programs to make ends meet, putting increased stress on limited resources. Studies have also found that former prisoners who were unable to find steady employment were more likely to recidivate. In other words, the box on employment applications can actually make us less safe.
Banning the box does not prevent potential employers from making inquiries into a person’s criminal history later in the process. But postponing these questions until after an interview is conducted gives those with criminal records the chance to get through the door, prove their worth, and stand on their qualifications — as we all deserve.
Advocacy groups such as All of Us or None, the National Employment Law Project, and PICO National Network have been calling on the government and employers to ban the box for over a decade. Through their efforts to organize and mobilize former prisoners and their family members, faith communities, and advocacy organizations, the momentum for reform has been steadily building. In April 2014, the Brennan Center published the first report specifically urging President Obama to issue an executive order to ban the box from federal job applications aside from those for law enforcement and national security positions. The National Employment Law Project and Center for American Progress also issued reports, joining forces with other advocacy groups and civil rights organizations to wage a forceful national campaign to successfully urge the President to issue this executive order.
Now, with a stroke of his pen, President Obama will bring nearly 2.7 million government positions within reach for people with criminal convictions. His action is a model for states, localities, and other federal branches to follow. The President should be applauded for his leadership on this. However, he can and should do more to improve our criminal justice system as a whole.
We live in an era of mass incarceration — with 5 percent of the world’s population we have over 25 percent of its prisoners. And every day more people enter the system, all of whom will exit with a criminal record. Further action is required to stem the current influx of people into the system. In 15 Executive Actions, we urged the President to do more to reduce incarceration: he should issue an executive order to stem the federal subsidization of mass incarceration, commute the sentences of individuals locked up for outdated harsh crack crimes, and shift federal prosecutorial practices to reduce unnecessary imprisonment. Taken together, these represent meaningful reform he could make to our justice system tomorrow – without recourse to a slow-moving and often dysfunctional Congress.