In order to remove barriers to employment for the formerly incarcerated, President Obama will order federal employers to “ban the box” in the early stages of the application and hiring process. Monday’s announcement is the result of mounting pressure from legal groups and former inmates.
The decision, which will be announced during the president’s trip to Newark, New Jersey, will require the federal government’s Human Resources department to “delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process.” Although it does not ban the criminal background question altogether, job applicants are more likely to receive an offer if the question is posed later in the application process.
In July, the president called on employers to eliminate the criminal history question from job applications, but stopped short of executive action. Several weeks later, ban the box advocates rallied in front of the White House to pressure Obama to take executive action. People who lived through the experience of leaving prison and struggling to find work shared how demoralizing the barrier to employment can be.
“Given the racial disparities of the American criminal justice system, criminal record based discrimination in the employment context serves as a surrogate for race-based discrimination,” Glenn Martin, a formerly incarcerated activist and President of Just Leadership USA, told ThinkProgress. “President Obama’s steps to ban-the-box means that more qualified jobseekers will have the chance to find jobs, support their families, and pay taxes.”
Close to 90 percent of all employers in the country conduct background checks, making it extremely difficult for people who served time in prison to advance in the hiring process. Within the first year of their release, 60 percent of people cannot secure jobs. The ones who do make 40 percent less money than their colleagues.
People who cannot find work are also more likely to meet their basic needs through criminal activity and wind up behind bars once more.
“I just got out of jail doing 6 years, and that box was the thing that kept leading me back into incarcerations, due to the simple fact that I had a criminal record, and anytime you have a felony or whatever the case may be, it holds you back from certain jobs,” Christopher Williams, a formerly incarcerated Massachusetts resident, previously told ThinkProgress. “To me, it was discrimination because, you didn’t even ask me, what do I have a felony for. You just straight up told me you’ll call me in three days and it’s been three weeks and you never called me back. I get frustrated and it leads me back to the same thing I went to jail for.”
According to the National Institute of Justice, having a criminal record negatively affects someone’s chance at employment more than any other type of stigma. And just as the U.S. disproportionately incarcerates people of color, minorities with a criminal record are disproportionately impacted by discrimination in the application process.
While the executive order will improve the prospects of federal jobseekers, millions of people looking for jobs outside of the federal system will still be confronted by the dreaded question. Only 19 states have passed ban the box legislation, and seven have extended the policy to private employers.