President Obama just gave a speech in Newark, New Jersey announcing two measures aimed at making it easier for people just out of prison to find their feet upon regaining their freedom. Noting that about 600,000 federal and state inmates are released each year, Obama lamented the fact that, “a lot of times, [a criminal] record disqualifies you from being a full participant in our society, even if you’ve already paid your debt to society… That’s bad not only for those individuals, it’s bad for our economy, and it’s bad for the communities that desperately need more role models who are gainfully employed.”
The first of the executive actions Obama announced today—in a speech that coincided with the early release of thousands of drug offenders whose sentences were shortened thanks to changes in federal sentencing guidelines—involves the creation of grants that will help pay for job-training programs and housing for the newly released. The second will prevent the federal government from asking job candidates about their criminal records until after their qualifications have been substantively evaluated. This measure will only have a very modest effect in practice, but it puts the symbolic weight of the Obama administration behind a national reform movement known as “ban the box,” which says people who have been to prison should be given a chance to prove themselves when applying for jobs instead of being marked for life with a big red 'x' that discourages employers from interviewing them. (A thorough explainer on "ban the box" and its implications can be found here, from Vox's Dara Lind.)
The President, who has been on a whirlwind public speaking tour for the past several weeks in support of criminal justice reform, praised companies like Walmart, Target, and Home Depot that have already “banned the box” on their own initiative, and called on Congress to pass a bill that would go even further than his executive action does in neutralizing criminal history as a factor for people applying to work for the federal government.
“The federal government should not use criminal history to screen out applicants,” Obama said, adding, “We can’t dismiss people out of hand simply because of a mistake they made in the past.”
Though he acknowledged the limits of his executive power to actually help the thousands of people who are released from prison every month, the President made an impassioned argument for the federal government’s ability to build momentum for the idea that giving former prisoners a second chance in life is the right thing to do.
“My hope is that with the federal government taking action, and us getting legislation passed, this becomes a basic principle across our society,” he said.