Obama Takes Steps to Help Former Inmates Find Jobs and Homes
NEWARK — President Obama ordered federal agencies on Monday to stop asking most prospective employees about their criminal histories at the beginning of the application process, a change long sought by activists to help reintegrate former inmates into society.
During a trip to Newark, where he visited a residential drug treatment center, Mr. Obama said that America would be stronger if it found ways to move criminals emerging from prison into paying jobs, but that too many employers dismiss applicants out of hand if they are honest and check the box asking whether they have been convicted of a crime.
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“It’s not too late,” Mr. Obama told an audience at the Newark campus of Rutgers University that included a few ex-offenders who had turned their lives around. “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.”
Mr. Obama directed the federal Office of Personnel Management to delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process for most competitive federal jobs so applicants are not rejected before having a chance to make a positive impression. Most federal agencies have already taken this step, but officials said new rules would be published in the new year banning requests for criminal backgrounds until the most qualified applicants are sent to a hiring manager. Exceptions will be made for law enforcement, national security and other sensitive positions.
Mr. Obama could “ban the box,” to use the phrase coined by supporters of such a policy, for federal contractors as well, but he has resisted for now because he would prefer that Congress write such a prohibition into a law that would survive his presidency, aides said.
The president on Monday urged Congress to pass just such a bipartisan bill that was introduced in September, but some activists expressed disappointment that Mr. Obama did not simply sign a broader executive order covering contractors.
Mr. Obama also unveiled a series of small initiatives intended to make it easier for former prisoners to find jobs and live in subsidized housing, moves that were important less for their individual effect than for the momentum they continue. Collectively, they reflect a belief that former inmates should have greater leeway to apply for jobs and housing without disclosing criminal records.
The president announced grants to provide job training for those with criminal records, including a software development program in Newark, and issued new guidance for public authorities that clarifies when arrest records can be used to determine eligibility for assisted housing. In addition, he announced the creation of a national clearinghouse to help former inmates expunge or seal records, when possible, and a program to help public housing residents under the age of 25 do the same.
The focus on helping former prisoners readjust to the outside world is all the more timely with the decision last month by the United States Sentencing Commission to release about 6,000 federal prisoners earlier than expected under reduced penalties for drug offenses. Mr. Obama, Congress and the states are also working on other initiatives to reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes.
With more than two million people in federal, state and local penal facilities, revamping the criminal justice system after the tough-on-crime movement of the 1980s and 1990s has become one of the rare areas of bipartisan consensus lately. A bipartisan coalition on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent to the floor last month a measure to overhaul sentencing rules, and the president has made it a top domestic priority for his final year in office.
While in Newark, Mr. Obama visited Integrity House, a residential drug treatment center, and held a discussion at Rutgers with ex-offenders and the court and government officials who help them re-enter society. Presented with handpicked success stories, he then shared their examples with a larger audience.
Departing from his prepared text, Mr. Obama singled out Dquan Rosario, who was first arrested on drug charges at age 17 and then sentenced to 10 years in prison at age 27. Since leaving custody, Mr. Rosario became an emergency medical technician in Essex County.
“Instead of peddling drugs that are destroying lives, he’s saving lives,” Mr. Obama said. “He’s making the community better.”
About 70 million Americans have some sort of criminal history, and 20 million have felony convictions on their records, according to government officials. Men with criminal records account for about 34 percent of nonworking men between the ages of 25 and 54, according to a poll by The New York Times, CBS News and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Studies have found that men who reported criminal convictions were about 50 percent less likely to receive a call back or a job offer, a dynamic even more pronounced among African-American applicants.
The “ban the box” movement has drawn strong support across the ideological spectrum and in the private sector. Companies as diverse as Koch Industries, Walmart, Target and Home Depot have voluntarily eliminated the criminal history box from job applications, as have more than 100 counties and cities and 19 states, including California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, according to the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for the rights of lower-wage workers. Seven states, including New Jersey, have ordered private employers to remove the box, as well.
Mr. Obama said that a criminal history was still a relevant factor for hiring, but that applicants should be judged on first glance by their qualifications for the job. “We’re not suggesting ignore it,” he said. “What we are suggesting is, when it comes to the application, give folks a chance to get through the door. Give them a chance to get in there so that they can make their case.”
The Fair Chance Act introduced in Congress in September would ban the federal government and federal contractors from requesting criminal history information until they reach the conditional offer stage. The bill would provide exceptions for law enforcement and national security positions and jobs requiring access to classified information.
The measure is being sponsored by Senators Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, and Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, and Representatives Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, and Darrell Issa, Republican of California.