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Reintegrating Ex-Cons May Be The New Civil Rights Frontier

Last week, North Las Vegas became the latest city to
consider removing a barrier that prevents people with criminal records from getting
jobs.

The barrier in question is a box. Many job applications have
such a box. Job applicants must check this box if they have a criminal record
or an arrest record.

No vote was held at the North Las Vegas City council meeting,
but the conversation is underway, as it is across the country. More than 150
cities and counties and 24 states have adopted “ban the box” policies,
according to the National Employment Law Project.

“Ban the Box as a whole has really
reached a tipping point in the country in terms of acceptance,” said Michelle
Rodriguez Senior Staff Attorney and Policy Expert at the NELP. “It’s really
reached that point where it’s no longer about individuals just moving it
forward. It has life of its own.”

The movement was born from the efforts of
grass roots organizations like All of Us or None. These groups were organized
by former inmates and their families to highlight the challenges that face
people with criminal records when they try to reintegrate into society and
enter the job market.

“In the United States we have about one
in three adults with some type of record and that has the potential to be a job
barrier and prevent you from thriving in your community and of course supporting
your family,” Rodriguez said. “These initiatives are needed because of the
seriousness of the problem of having millions of people in the United States
with some kind of arrest or conviction record.”

The movement has garnered so much attention
that even the White House has gotten involved. In November 2015, President
Obama challenged employers to take the Fair Chance Business Pledge. Employers who
take the pledge vow to promote fair chance hiring practices by banning the box,
training human resources staff and providing internships and job training to
people with criminal records.

The hope is that employers will consider
each applicant on their own merits, before asking whether the applicant has a
criminal record. High-profile employers have lent their support to the concept,
including Richard Branson, Koch Industries and Facebook.

On June 10, 2016, The White House
Launched the Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge which moved the discussion out
of the Human Resources department and onto the university campus. The Fair Chance
Higher Education Pledge asked universities to consider a prospective student’s
academic criteria first, before asking questions about arrest and conviction
records.

In a real-life example of putting their money where their
mouth is, the Obama administration launched Second Chance Pell in July. The program
will provide funding for 12,000 prisoners to enroll at 67 colleges and
universities.

Critics have objected to the program because in 1995 Congress
voted to make prisoners ineligible for Federal Pell Grants. However, the Education
Department has created the program under the Experimental Sites Initiative, in
which Congress granted the U.S. Department of Education the authority to test
the effectiveness of new programs without the restriction of specific statutory
or regulatory requirements.

“With
complicated issues you need to address them on multiple fronts. The overarching
theme for all of these policy changes is valuing people for who they are,”
Rodriguez said. “We’re not there yet. We’re not in a society yet where we can
look at a person and not have the fear that’s attached to them having a record.”

That’s bad news for the economy. An estimated $78 to $87
billion in annual GDP is lost each year due to people with felony convictions
being unable to get jobs, according to an analysis by the Center for Economic
and Policy Research based on Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released
guidance for employers on using arrest and conviction records in a way that
balances the need for safety with the rights of the individual.

“Basically what it says is you can look
at a record if you need to make your job decisions but there shouldn’t be
blanket bans,” Rodriguez said. “Instead you’re looking at the whole person.
Look to see if something is job related.”

Despite these efforts, many people with arrest and
conviction records still struggle to get jobs. Some state and local governments
have implemented expungement programs that allow nonviolent offenders the
chance to clear their record.

“What is helpful about that, is it
acknowledges that the reality of stigma is so deep for people.” Rodriquez said.
“As soon as you see a record an employer will have an immediate reaction. There
is something that’s very helpful in acknowledging that that’s the case and
saying let’s just make that process easier for them.”

Ban the Box and the policy changes that
have happened thus far are just the first step, Rodriguez said. 

“How can we also situate ourselves squarely
in an anti-discrimination framework?” Rodriguez said. “It does have to do with
race and structural racism and how the paring of criminality has been
associated particularly with young men of color. That needs to be part of the
larger conversation.”

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