President Obama announced today that applicants for federal jobs will no longer be asked whether or not they have a criminal record. This is a great step in the right direction that will help citizens returning from the criminal justice system find employment and will reduce recidivism, an important component in OSI-Baltimore’s goal of reducing the prison population by 50 percent.
By announcing a “Ban the Box” policy for all federal hires, Obama has highlighted the struggles of returning citizens across the country. It recognizes the need for comprehensive criminal justice reform—reform that gives people a second chance rather than effectively making any criminal sentence a life sentence.
According to the Justice Department, 60-to-75% of returning citizens can’t find work within a year of leaving jail. One of OSI-Baltimore’s 2015 Community Fellows, Gregory Carpenter, is an ex-offender whose project, Eye Can Bmore, offers other ex-offenders culinary and job skills training. In a video about his project, Carpenter talks about his experiences re-entering the community after being in the criminal justice system. “There was just no opportunity and it was blatant and up-front,” he says. “‘No, you have a criminal record, you can’t work here.'”
It’s important to remember that there are a wide variety of “Ban the Box” policies. The new federal policy says HR departments will “delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process.” When employers ask about people’s criminal histories makes a great difference in the ultimate effectiveness of the policy, in terms of how many returned citizens actually end up getting decent employment. A policy that prevents employers from asking about criminal history until an initial interview (even a phone interview) isn’t nearly as strong as one that prevents them from asking until after a conditional job offer is made. One of the stronger “Ban the Box” policies around has been implemented in New York City. Such a policy, in the federal government and beyond, would have the greatest impact on reducing recidivism and incarceration rates.