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President Obama Backs ‘Ban the Box’ to Help Former Prisoners Get Jobs

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By Hazel Trice Edney

( — President Barack Obama, who this week enacted the largest release of prisoners at one time in 30 years, has announced that he is “taking action to ‘ban the box’’ for the most competitive jobs at federal agencies.”

Barack Obama helps former prisoners
Barack Obama helps former prisoners

That means he is pushing to remove all job application questions about a person’s prior criminal record in order to make it easier for the former inmates to get jobs. Those questions have often ended with rejection slips; especially for convicted felons.

“Now, the federal government is a big employer, as you know, and like a lot of big employers, on many job applications there’s a box that asks if you have a criminal record.  If you answer yes, then a lot of times you’re not getting a call back,” the President told the audience during a criminal justice forum at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. “We’re going to do our part in changing this.  The federal government, I believe, should not use criminal history to screen out applicants before we even look at their qualifications.  We can’t dismiss people out of hand simply because of a mistake that they made in the past.”

Obama’s announcement quickly won resounding applause from civil rights, criminal justice and labor groups.

“Unfortunately, too many hardworking and highly qualified men and women are finding their path to success blocked by a system that is rigged against them,” said Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “Measures such as Ban the Box are the right approach to ease the job hunt for working people with prior convictions.”

“President Obama’s move to ban the box will benefit everyone: families, employers, communities, and of course, people with records. The facts are clear: returning citizens who find jobs are far more likely to stay out of prison,” said Kevin Gay, CEO of Operation New Hope and creator of Ready4Work, a nationally recognized reentry program for the formerly incarcerated.And we can’t rebuild families and communities destroyed by incarceration if people who leave prison end up right back behind bars when they are released. Banning the box is an essential step to reducing incarceration rates in the United States.”

Civil rights groups have long called for the removal of such questions from job applications.

In July, Wade Henderson, president/CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, called for President Obama to “take the next step in helping the formerly incarcerated re-integrate by issuing an executive order to ban the box and implement fair chance hiring practices for federal jobs and contractors. The 700,000 people released from American prisons every year are met with innumerable obstacles to successfully re-entering their communities.”

The President’s push for a better life for former prisoners comes as the Justice Department releases about 6,000 inmates early from prison. The prisoners, released between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2, account for the largest mass release of prisoners in three decades – in order to reduce overcrowding and give fair treatment to non-violent drug offenders who received sentences that were too long.

While some were released to halfway houses or home confinement, some are on supervised release and most will need jobs.

In his speech on Monday, the President stopped short of saying he will use executive order to establish the Ban the Box measure. So far, he has called on Congress to pass legislation to establish the policy.

The announcement came after a year of meetings between President Obama and stake holders in criminal justice, including prisoner advocates, inmates, police and correctional officers, among others.

“I’ve met with prisoners, corrections officers.  I’ve met with families of fallen police officers and families of children who were killed by gun violence,” he recalled. “I’ve met with men and women battling drug abuse, and rehab coaches, and folks working on new solutions for treatment.”

He’s also spent hours talking with former Newark Mayor Corey Booker, now a U. S. senator, who was in the Rutgers audience, as well as

The point is to develop ways to “break the cycle that has young children somehow on that pipeline where they end up incarcerated,” he said.

The White House has issued a fact sheet to outline the main steps the President is taking to address the criminal justice system as well as to reintegrate former prisoners back into society. Among them are:

  • Called on Congress to pass criminal justice reforms that reduce recidivism for those who are reentering society.  They include the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which recently received a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. That act would reduce extreme sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, provide additional resources for reentry services, help for mental illness and addictions as well as for state and local law enforcement.
  • The Department of Education will award up to $8 million (over 3 years) to at least nine communities to support educational programs and the reentry success for individuals.
  • Expanding technology training and jobs for individuals with criminal records.  As a part of President Obama’s TechHire initiative, over 30 communities are taking action – working with each other and national employers – to expand access to tech jobs for more Americans with fast track training like coding boot camps and new recruitment and placement strategies.

Obama has assured the public that criminal justice will remain a priority during his final year in office.

“Now, right now, there are 2.2 million Americans behind bars….We incarcerate people at a rate that is unequaled around the world. We account for 5 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of its inmates.  They are disproportionately black and Latino,” he said. “More than 600,000 inmates are released each year.  Around 70 million Americans have some sort of criminal record — 70 million.  That’s almost one in five of us. Almost one in three Americans of working age…. It’s bad for the communities that desperately need more role models who are gainfully employed.  So we’ve got to make sure Americans who’ve paid their debt to society can earn their second chance.”


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