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Activists applaud Obama's prison-to-job reforms

Nineteen states and more than 100 cities and counties have already passed some type of “ban the box” legislation.

President Barack Obama is changing the rules to help reformed felons find jobs.

On Monday, the commander-in-chief announced executive actions that will prohibit federal government agencies from asking job applicants about their criminal records until later in the hiring process — something several states and municipalities have done in recent years in hopes of removing employment hurdles for qualified workers with criminal pasts.

Nineteen states and more than 100 cities and counties have already passed some type of “ban the box” legislation. The slogan refers to the requirement that former convicts check boxes on job applications indicating their criminal pasts. More than half of these 19 states have done so in the past two years — including Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Virginia.

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Activists applauded Obama’s latest move, arguing that it will allow employers to consider a prospective worker’s qualifications first — instead of initially weeding candidates out based of a checkered past. But they also expressed hope that the executive order will eventually be extended to federal contractors, as well.

“It’s a conservative step in the right direction,” said Glenn Martin, president of Just Leadership USA, an organization that wants to cut the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. For Martin, 43, the issue is personal. The Harlem resident recounted coming out of jail in 2000 after serving six years for a robbery conviction. Although he received a two-year associates degree behind bars, Martin said he was turned down by approximately 50 employers in one month after leaving prison. Only with the help of a re-entry group was Martin able to get a job answering phones — for $16,000 a year.

If ban-the-box legislation had existed when he came out of jail, “It would have boosted my self esteem knowing I would have had the chance to make the case that I was the most qualified candidate,” said Martin, explaining that many job seekers coming out of jail experience a “chilling effect” in not wanting to apply for certain positions even if they are qualified, because they know that they'll have to check that dreaded box.

Nayantara Mehta, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project (NELP), applauded Obama’s move but said she hopes it will be extended to federal contractors, as well, explaining that nearly one in four U.S. workers are employed either by a federal contractor, subcontractor, or the federal government. NELP also hopes the new guidelines will require employers to look at job-seekers' records as a whole, including how long ago the offense occurred and if it is directly related to the job being applied for.

“We are really pleased that the president has taken a step in the right direction ... but we’d like to see him go further,” she said.

NELP has estimated that approximately 70 million people in the country have some sort of criminal record and nearly 700,000 return to their communities from incarceration every year. Meanwhile, the Justice Department estimates that about 60% to 75% of former inmates cannot find a job within their first year out of prison.

The impact of ban-the-box legislation varies, and the record is incomplete because in so many places it’s still new. But there have been some harbingers of success. For example, in Atlanta, as a result of a new criminal disclosure policy, 10% of the city’s hires between March and October of 2013 were people with criminal records. In Durham County, North Carolina, the number of applicants with criminal records recommended for hire has nearly tripled in the two years since it enacted such policies.

So why the recent  momentum behind ban the box legislation? “There’s consensus that the last few decades of mass incarceration, especially in communities of color, have really shattered communities ... We can’t expect people to come home and then stay out of trouble when they have no job prospects,” said Mehta.

Presidential candidates want in on the action, as well. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton endorsed such legislation last week. Republican Sen. Rand Paul has introduced similar legislation, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been boasting of signing into law last year a bill that mandates companies wait until they have interviewed job applicants before asking if that person has ever been convicted of a crime.

Not everyone is on board, however: Several small business owners argue restrictions are costly both in terms of time and money. A past criminal record “doesn’t disqualify an applicant,” said Jack Mozloom, a spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, who gave the example of a retailer interviewing someone charged with theft. “But you at least want to have a conversation  with the applicant, ‘how do you know it’s not going to happen again?’ Local business owners live and die on their reputations,” Mozloom added.

Mozloom, which represents approximately 325,000 small and independent business owners in the U.S., said in the past three years such concerns have increased — especially in states with recent adoptions like New Jersey and Massachusetts — because of the recent momentum of the legislative movement.

Obama’s latest move comes as he hopes to make criminal justice reform — particularly reducing the ballooning prison population — a large part of his last two years in office. The United States Sentencing Commission announced last month it would grant early release to approximately 6,000 federal prisoners incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes.

During his visit on Monday to Newark, New Jersey, to announce new actions to promote rehabilitation reintegration for the formerly incarcerated, Obama said, "We've got to make sure those Americans who paid their debt to society can earn their second chance." The president added that while criminal history is relevant, "when it comes to the application, give folks a chance to get through the door."