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Obama Steps Up Efforts To Open Employment Opportunities To Formerly Incarcerated People

May 26, 2016


May 26, 2016

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As he nears the end of his presidency, President Obama appears more determined than ever to create a path to employment for ex-convicts. On April 29th 2016, the President signed a memorandum entitled “Promoting Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Formerly Incarcerated Individuals”.

This memorandum is aimed at bringing together various stakeholders in order to remove the barriers which a typical ex-con currently faces as they seek for gainful employment. These stakeholders include federal agencies, private employers, civil rights activists, and other related organizations.

According to White House statistics, over 70 million Americans have some form of criminal record. These records include arrests, criminal adjudication and convictions. Also, each year, over 600,000 people are released from federal and state prisons. Millions more are released from local correctional facilities.

For most of these people, the path towards employment is barred. This is because most employers (federal, state and private) have recruitment policies which preclude people with criminal records from getting hired.

The ultimate result is that the rates of recidivism (re-offending) are extremely high. Most ex-convicts end up re-offending – not because they want to – but because they have no choice. The path towards entering the jobs market – so that they can earn an honest living – is barred.

The Presidential Memorandum is intended to change the situation. Its ultimate goal is to create an atmosphere in which ex-cons can get a fair shot at employment. It does this through a combination of executive action, legislation, engagement of private employers, and equipping ex-offenders for the jobs market.

At the core of the strategy is providing training and rehabilitation for incarcerated individuals. This intends to address the skills gaps, addiction problems and mental health issues which can create barriers to employment. The Presidential Memorandum therefore set up the Federal Interagency Reentry Council.

The Council is tasked with coordinating the Government’s efforts for preparing incarcerated individuals to reenter the jobs market. Its goal is to provide those under incarceration with education programming, job skills training, life skills development, addiction treatment and mental health rehabilitation. This will equip incarcerated individuals to be able to compete fairly in the jobs market.

The second strategy undertaken by the federal government is through establishing a “ban the box” rule during recruitment. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is set to publish a proposed rule which bans federal agencies from inquiring about a person’s criminal record at the onset of the recruitment process.

The proposed rule will require criminal records to be checked only after a conditional offer has been made. It will also place restrictions on when criminal records can be a basis of denying someone employment. Recruiters will be forced to consider aspects of the crime such as age of the offender, mitigating factors and whether the particular conviction renders the person unsuitable for the specific job they are applying for.

The OPM’s proposed rule will only formalize a measure which is already in place. President Obama already “banned the box” in federal hiring processes courtesy of an Executive Order he issued on November 2nd, 2015.

The idea behind “banning the box” is that inquiring about criminal records at the onset of the hiring process discourages ex-convicts from applying. It also prevents employers from making an unbiased assessment of an applicant’s credentials. When people have an opportunity to present their credentials, unfettered by their criminal histories, the likelihood of them getting hired greatly increases.

The federal government is so convinced by the philosophy behind banning the box that it is engaging private employers to adopt it. As part of the strategy to open opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals, the White House hosted 19 companies on April 11th, 2016.

These companies launched the “Fair Chance Business Pledge” – an initiative aimed at opening up the path for ex-cons to get employment in the private sector. The aim of this initiative is to give people with criminal records an opportunity to compete fairly for jobs within the private sector.

Basically, private employers who sign up for the Fair Change Business Pledge commit to three things. First of all, they agree to “ban the box” by eliminating inquiries of criminal history until they have reached the point of hiring an applicant. Secondly, they commit to examining each employment record in the proper context. Finally, they agree to reform their hiring processes such that they do not keep jobs out of reach of ex-convicts.

At the launch of the Fair Chance Business Pledge, the 19 companies present included American Airlines, Coca Cola, Facebook, Google, PespsiCo, Starbucks, Uber, and John Hopkins Hospital, among others. Since then, a total of 112 US employers have signed up. These employ a combined 1.5 million people. More employers are signing up by the day.

Ultimately, civil rights organizations like the ACLU and NAACP have been pushing for a federal “ban the box” law for a while now. Even though such a law isn’t enacted during Mr. Obama’s presidency, initiatives like the Fair Chance Business Pledge will certainly go a long way towards presenting employment opportunities to formerly incarcerated people.

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