This article has been updated.
President Obama on Monday announced a new order to reduce potential discrimination against former convicts in the hiring process for federal government employees.
It is a step towards what many criminal justice reformers call “ban the box” – the effort to eliminate requirements that job applicants check a box on their applications if they have a criminal record.
While the rule was once seen as a common sense way for employers to screen for criminal backgrounds, it has been increasingly criticized as a hurdle that fosters employment discrimination against former inmates, regardless of the severity of their offense or how long ago it occurred. Banning the box delays when employers learn of an applicant’s record.
Obama unveiled the plan on a visit to a treatment center in New Jersey, a state where Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a ban the box bill into law last year. Hillary Clinton endorsed ban the box last week, while Republican Sen. Rand Paul also introduced similar federal legislation, with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, to seal criminal records for non-violent offenders.
The White House says it is “encouraged” by such legislation in a new statement, but emphasizes the president’s order will take immediate action, mandating that the federal government’s HR department “delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process.”
President Obama spoke to several federal prisoners about that very approach in July, when he was the first sitting president to visit an American prison.
“If the disclosure of a criminal record happens later in a job application process,” he told them, “you’re more likely to be hired.” Obama described what many studies show – that when many employers see the box checked for an applicant’s criminal record, they weed them out without ever looking at their qualifications.
“If they have a chance to at least meet you,” the president continued, “you’re able to talk to them about your life, what you’ve done, maybe they give you a chance.”
About 60-to-75% of former inmates cannot find work within their first year out of jail, according to the Justice Department, a huge impediment to re-entering society.
Research shows the existence of a criminal record can reduce an employer’s interest in applicant by about 50%, and that when white and black applicants both have records, employers are far less likely to call back a black applicant than a white one. As a 2009 re-entry study in New York city found, “the criminal record penalty suffered by white applicants (30%) is roughly half the size of the penalty for blacks with a record (60%).”
Obama’s move also comes in the wake of a growing movement for criminal justice reform – from broad calls by groups like Black Lives Matter to a specific campaign on ban the box that ranged from half the Senate Democratic caucus to civil rights groups to artists like John Legend.
On Monday, Legend told MSNBC, “We applaud the President’s decision to end this unfair bias against people who have served their time and paid their debt to society. We hope that Congress and state legislatures across the country will follow suit.”
The President announced several other measures Monday, including public housing and money for re-entry programs, and he spoke about prison reform in a speech and an exclusive interview with NBC Nightly News Anchor Lester Holt.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated President Obama would ban the box for federal employees and contractors. While the White House supports legislation to do so, the rule the president announced Monday applies only to federal employees, not contractors.