Obama Bans the Box

Back in June, we discussed the need for “ban the box” laws that prohibit the categorical exclusion of non-violent offenders from employment opportunities, often for the rest of their lives, in the context of Gilad Edelman’s review of a book on the subject.

We noted then that sixteen states and many local governments have adopted “ban the box” laws. But the biggest step towards making second chances available was taken today by President Obama, who banned use of “the box” by federal human resources departments. It has the effect of delaying–not eliminating–knowledge of a job applicant’s criminal background until later in the hiring process, giving the applicant more of a chance to show rehabilitation.

President Obama spoke to several federal prisoners about that very approach in July, when he was the first sitting president to visit an American prison.

“If the disclosure of a criminal record happens later in a job application process,” he told them, “you’re more likely to be hired.” Obama described what many studies show – that when many employers see the box checked for an applicant’s criminal record, they weed them out without ever looking at their qualifications.

“If they have a chance to at least meet you,” the president continued, “you’re able to talk to them about your life, what you’ve done, maybe they give you a chance.”

About 60-to-75% of former inmates cannot find work within their first year out of jail, according to the Justice Department, a huge impediment to re-entering society.

This step by Obama could create an important test of the strength of a bipartisan coalition favoring criminal justice reform. It’s no accident that he announced the initiative during a visit to a treatment facility in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie has signed ban-the-box legislation. It’s also been championed in Congress by another GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul.

Let’s hope this creates a foundation for future reforms.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.