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Obama Calls on Congress to ‘Ban the Box’ on Criminal Records

Kanya D’Almeida

President Obama's directive to delay inquiries into criminal records could move the government closer to outlawing disclosure of past felonies as a prerequisite for employment.

Criminal justice advocates scored a big win Monday with President Obama’s announcement of new measures aimed at easing reintegration of returning citizens—individuals released from state and federal prisonswho number more than 600,000 annually.

As part of a broader plan to tackle mass incarceration, Obama ordered federal agencies to delay inquiries into criminal backgrounds in a bid to prevent employment discrimination against formerly incarcerated people.

His directive is expected to move the government closer to “banning the box”: ending the hiring practice that requires prospective employees to disclose past felonies on job applications.

The president also called on Congress to take a lead from those states, cities, and private companies that have already chosen to ban the box, by considering bipartisan legislation that would outlaw the practice for federal hiring, including hiring by federal contractors.

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Nineteen states from every region of the country have implemented these “fair chance” laws, according to a database compiled by the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

More than 100 cities have similar laws on the books. New York City’s Fair Chance Act, which was passed by its city council in June, kicked in on October 27, effectively opening new doors for the estimated 2.5 million residents there who have criminal records.

Alyssa Aguilera, political director at VOCAL-NY, told Rewire the Fair Chance Act is “the most progressive fair chance hiring policy in the country”—partly because it goes beyond federal jobs and contractors and applies to private sector workplaces with four or more employees, and also because it “bans the box” not only from job applications, but even in interviews until a tentative hire offer has been made.

Shortly after Obama’s speech Monday, in which he also announced educational grants totaling $8 million to be distributed over three years to returning citizens, Twitter lit up in support for #BanTheBox, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tweeting: “A criminal record shouldn’t mean a life sentence of poverty.”

For millions of returning citizens, however, this has long been the case.

An April 2015 fact sheet produced by the NELP revealed that men with a criminal record comprise 34 percent of unemployed men between 25 and 54 years of age, while a former inmate at the peak of their working life could expect to earn $192,000 less than a person who had never been incarcerated.

Banning the box is expected to give returning citizens a fair break, but some feel it falls short of larger goals within the movement to reform the criminal justice system.

“We applaud all the steps Obama is taking to try to ease re-entry of people back into society,” Mujahid Farid, director of the NYC-based organization Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), told Rewire. “But we don’t think what he is doing is going far enough.”

Farid, who himself was incarcerated for 33 years, said the president’s heavy focus on so-called nonviolent offenders is too narrow to effectively tackle the issue of mass incarceration, adding, “nothing is going to be solved until we get to the root of the problem, which is the punishment paradigm in this country.”

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