Finding employment after being incarcerated is an important – if not the most important – step in a former inmate’s reentry into the community. Unfortunately, finding employment is often one of the most difficult tasks former inmates undertake due to widespread discrimination against job applicants with criminal records. In fact, a 2009 study by the U.S Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice found that between 60 and 75 percent of ex-offenders are jobless up to a year after being released. A large factor in the inability for former inmates to secure post-release employment is the fact that they are often required to disclose their criminal history upfront, causing many employers to discard their application without even meeting with the applicant or considering their qualifications.
President Obama announced a new order aimed at reducing discrimination against job applicants with criminal records seeking employment with the federal government
While requiring job applicants to disclose their criminal record has traditionally been seen as a way for employers to reduce risk in the workplace, over recent years these disclosure requirements have been increasingly viewed as extra, unnecessary hurdles for former inmates attempting to turn their lives around.
In an effort to assist the reentry process for these former inmates, earlier this month President Obama announced a new order aimed at reducing discrimination against job applicants with criminal records seeking employment with the federal government. This order, which reformers refer to as “banning the box,” will eliminate the requirement that job applicants with the federal government must check a box on their application if they have a criminal record.
In President Obama’s order, which he announced to an audience at the Newark campus of Rutgers University on November 2, he directed the federal Office of Personnel Management to delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process for most competitive federal jobs in order to allow applicants the chance to first make a positive impression. However, exceptions will be made for sensitive positions such as law enforcement and those involving issues of national security.
“If the disclosure of a criminal record happens later in a job application process, you’re more likely to be hired”
Although banning the box does not completely bar an employer from accessing an applicant’s criminal record, it delays the employer from being able to learn about the applicant’s criminal record until later in the application process, which gives the applicant a better chance at receiving a callback or job offer. Advocates for this delay, such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, say that allowing an applicant to meet the employer and prove their qualifications before giving the employer access to their criminal record will lessen the chance that an applicant will be immediately disregarded due to their past.
President Obama has also commented on the importance of these applicants being given an opportunity to meet with the potential employer and explain their circumstances. This past July, President Obama made headlines by becoming the first United States president to visit a federal prison. After speaking with several federal prisoners after this visit, President Obama hinted at his intentions to make finding employment for former inmates less discriminatory. “If the disclosure of a criminal record happens later in a job application process, you’re more likely to be hired,” he said. “If [employers] have a chance to at least meet you, you’re able to talk to them about your life, what you’ve done, [and] maybe they [will] give you a chance.”
Research has also shown that the employment prospects of former inmates improve when the applicants have the chance to meet with the hiring manager before disclosing their criminal record. In a 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, job applicants were more likely to be hired when they were first afforded the opportunity to interact with the hiring manager, particularly when these interactions elicited sympathetic responses from the hiring manager.
Not only did the 2009 study show the importance of job applicants interacting with potential employers, but the study also revealed just how challenging it is to find employment as an ex-offender. A criminal record was found to reduce the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent. Notably, black applicants felt the impact of a criminal record much more harshly than white applicants. The reduced likelihood in receiving a callback or job offer for a white applicant with a criminal record was approximately half the size of the impact of a criminal record for black applicants.
[A]pproximately 70 million Americans having some sort of criminal history, with 20 million of those having felony convictions.
The number of individuals whom the “ban the box” movement is likely to impact is much more widespread than one may think. According to The Sentencing Project, an organization dedicated to calling national attention to inequities in the criminal justice system, nearly 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons annually. This has led to approximately 70 million Americans having some sort of criminal history, with 20 million of those having felony convictions. A poll by The New York Times, CBS News, and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that men with criminal records account for about 34 percent of nonworking men between the ages of 25 and 54.
In addition to the added difficulties to securing employment for the 20 million Americans with one or more felony convictions, those with felony convictions face a host of other obstacles. Consequences of a felony conviction can include: losing access to food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits; not being eligible for public housing or federal loans to pursue an education; driver’s licenses being suspended; and losing the right to vote, serve on a jury, or join the military.
These consequences of a felony conviction are especially damaging for people who are attempting to reenter society after a period of incarceration. A report by The Sentencing Project explains why losing certain privileges, particularly access to food stamps and TANF benefits can be detrimental to an ex-offender attempting to reenter the community. Most people returning home from prison were struggling prior to entering the criminal justice system. The report states that “substantial proportions of people who are incarcerated have histories of substance abuse, mental health issues, homelessness, or physical or sexual abuse.” Without proper support, these individuals may continue to struggle with similar issues upon their release from prison.
Access to food stamps and TANF benefits are critical to former inmates because these programs “reduce the likelihood that formerly incarcerated individuals will return to criminal activity to secure food or other essentials for themselves or their families,” according to the report. Taking away these support systems from ex-offenders and making it more difficult for them to secure employment only serves to keep these individuals in an endless cycle of incarceration and poverty.
A step in the right direction
Making it even a little easier for former inmates to secure post-release employment by “banning the box” will hopefully encourage those who have formerly been discriminated against due to their criminal record to continue to make an effort to turn their lives around. “It’s not too late,” President Obama said the day he announced this new order. “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.”