This story was written by Josh Gerstein and appeared on politico.com on March 25, 2015
Obama urged to ease hiring of ex-prisoners
A group of criminal justice reformers, including some who served prison time, are headed to the White House Wednesday to press President Barack Obama to do more to help those who’ve been convicted of crimes find jobs, housing and other necessities once they get out.
The delegation is urging Obama to issue an executive order that would ban the federal government and government contractors from asking most job applicants about their criminal histories. The idea, labeled “Ban the Box,” has already been enacted in some form in 14 states and more than 100 localities.
“The trip to the White House for me is really meaningful,” said Dorsey Nunn, who now runs the San Francisco-based charity Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and went to prison in 1971 — at the age of 19 — in connection with a liquor store robbery in which the store’s owner was killed.
“I had to sit down and wrap my head around the fact that I had walked through both the gates of San Quentin and the gates of the White House compound,” Nunn said in an interview, referring to a visit he paid to the White House for another event last year.
The “Ban the Box” campaigners are set to meet Wednesday with the White House Director of Urban Affairs Roy Austin, as well as others from the Domestic Policy Council and the National Economic Council, before going to the Labor Department for another meeting.
Former prisoners say the challenges of getting a job and a place to live after doing time are among the leading factors that push former inmates to commit new crimes and society to incur additional costs to lock them up again.
“Look, it’s not rocket science,” said Daryl Atkinson, a senior staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “If folks can’t participate in the legal economy, that pushes them back to the illegal economy.”
Atkinson, who’s scheduled to attend the White House session Wednesday, spent 40 months in prison in North Carolina for drug trafficking in the 1990s before attending college and law school. He noted that about one in four American adults have faced charge or conviction in the criminal justice system and can encounter hiring problems as a result.
“This affects between 65 and 71 million Americans. If we want to make sure those folks have the opportunity to contribute to the economy and become taxpayers and productive members of society, this is a necessary policy initiative,” Atkinson said.
The campaigners say they’ve gotten a “very open” reception from other administration officials, such as a “re-entry” council Attorney General Eric Holder set up in 2011 to address problems integrating former prisoners into society.
Removing or delaying questions about criminal records in the federal hiring process raises obvious questions, like what to do about the tens of thousands of jobs that are security-related or require background checks. The Obama administration has pressed in court to preserve the government’s ability to demand such checks even for low-level positions, like store and data-entry clerks.
Atkinson said the fact that people with a criminal history might not be suitable for some government or contractor jobs doesn’t mean all of them should be off limits.“I can imagine in the FBI’s case, its positions, or Homeland Security, they’d be exempted out. That’s reasonable, but that’s the exception rather than the rule as far as the vast number of federal jobs associated with the federal government,” he said.
A White House spokesman declined to discuss the meeting or the administration’s stance on the “Ban the Box” idea, which was fought in California by the district attorneys’ association.
In 2013, the Obama administration warned federal contractors that bans on hiring those with criminal records could run afoul of discrimination laws because of the disproportionate rate at which minorities are incarcerated. However, the memo didn’t explicitly prohibit contractors from taking such issues into account.
As Obama’s presidency winds down, criminal justice reform has emerged as an issue of greater focus for him. It’s also garnering attention from Republican governors and from conservatives like mining barons Charles and David Koch. Former Obama White House aide Van Jones and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are holding a summit meeting in Washington Thursday, aimed at cutting prison populations by 50 percent.
The effort to focus on rehabilitating and reintegrating prisoners got a boost this week from two very prominent figures in the judicial system: Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer.
“The corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions, functions, that we have in our entire government,” Kennedy said at a House budget hearing Monday. “Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt/innocence adjudication process. And once the adjudication process is over, we have no interest in corrections….This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working. And it’s not humane.”
“I think it is a big problem for the country,” Breyer added.
In connection with the White House meeting, more than 100 labor, civil liberties and religious groups sent a letter to Obama Wednesday urging him to take executive action to require what the advocates call “fair chance hiring.”
Another campaigner headed to the White House session, Pastor Mike McBride of the faith-based group PICO Network, said he believes the bipartisan drive will make it easier for Obama and his aides to see a move on the ex-prisoner employement issue as a part of his legacy.
“I believe we’re creating a kind of crescendo and climate where the idea we’re verbalizing will be an easy, softball pitch for them,” McBride said. “People shouldn’t be penalized for their whole life for indiscretions they have made.”