President Obama: “Ban the Box”

On Monday, President Obama appeared at an event in Newark NJ to announce actions the Administration is taking to help rehabilitate Americans who have paid their debt to society.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

Now, a lot of time, [a criminal] record disqualifies you from being a full participant in our society — even if you’ve already paid your debt to society. It means millions of Americans have difficulty even getting their foot in the door to try to get a job much less actually hang on to that job. That’s bad for not only those individuals, it’s bad for our economy. It’s bad for the communities that desperately need more role models who are gainfully employed. So we’ve got to make sure Americans who’ve paid their debt to society can earn their second chance. […]

Number one, my administration is announcing new grants to help returning citizens seize that second chance through education and job training and housing and legal help and children’s services. (Applause.) […]

Point number two, I’m taking action to “ban the box” — (applause) — for the most competitive jobs at federal agencies.

Now, the federal government is a big employer, as you know, and like a lot of big employers, on many job applications there’s a box that asks if you have a criminal record. If you answer yes, then a lot of times you’re not getting a call back. We’re going to do our part in changing this. The federal government, I believe, should not use criminal history to screen out applicants before we even look at their qualifications. We can’t dismiss people out of hand simply because of a mistake that they made in the past.

(Full text of transcript below the fold)

FACT SHEET: President Obama Announces New Actions to Promote Rehabilitation and Reintegration for the Formerly- Incarcerated

Each year, more than 600,000 individuals are released from state and federal prisons. Advancing policies and programs that enable these men and women to put their lives back on track and earn their second chance promotes not only justice and fairness, but also public safety. That is why this Administration has taken a series of concrete actions to reduce the challenges and barriers that the formerly incarcerated confront, including through the work of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, a cabinet-level working group to support the federal government’s efforts to promote public safety and economic opportunity through purposeful cross-agency coordination and collaboration.

Transcript: Remarks by the President on Criminal Justice Reform

Rutgers University Center for Law and Justice Building, Newark, New Jersey, 4:15 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Well, good afternoon, everybody. It is good to be in Newark. (Applause.) Let me, first of all, thank your chancellor, Nancy Cantor, for hosting us here today. Where’s Nancy? (Applause.) There she is. Your Mayor, Ras Baraka, is here. (Applause.) Your Senator, Cory Booker, is in the house. (Applause.) Where did Cory go? There he is, right here. Your Congressman, Donald Payne, Jr. (Applause.)

Over the course of this year, I’ve been talking to people all across the country about reforming our criminal justice system to be fairer, to be smarter, to be more effective. I’ve met with police chiefs and beat cops. I’ve met with prisoners, corrections officers. I’ve met with families of fallen police officers and families of children who were killed by gun violence. I’ve met with men and women battling drug abuse, and rehab coaches, and folks working on new solutions for treatment.

And I have to tell you that from all these conversations, I have, at times, despaired about the magnitude of the problem. I’ve asked myself, how do we break the cycle that has young children somehow on that pipeline where they end up incarcerated? And yet, what’s interesting is I’ve been really hopeful, as well, during the course of this year because what I’ve seen is that there are people across the board — folks who work inside the criminal justice system, folks who are affected by the criminal justice system — who are saying, there’s got to be a better way to do this, and are not just asking questions about how we make the system smarter and more effective but are also showing us how it’s done and are actually implementing it.

This afternoon, I spent I’ve spent with the Mayor and Senator Booker, getting a firsthand look at how Newark is helping to lead the way. And as a partner in our My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, the Mayor and the Senator and Congressman and others are working in a public-private partnership to focus on disrupting the pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails. Here in Newark, when it comes to rehabilitating prisoners and reintegrating former inmates into society, you’ve got organizations that are doing extraordinary work. And that’s why I wanted to focus here today, because places like Integrity House, the work that’s being done in our federal ReNew program through the District Court and our U.S. Attorneys Office — they are accomplishing extraordinary things. And when you meet folks who are taking that step to break addiction and overcome great odds, and you see what they’ve already accomplished and what more they’re going to accomplish in the future, you cannot help but feel hopeful about the future.

Now, right now, there are 2.2 million Americans behind bars — 2.2 million. We incarcerate people at a rate that is unequaled around the world. We account for 5 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of its inmates. They are disproportionately black and Latino. As one of Cory’s Republican colleagues, John Cornyn from Texas — no bleeding-heart liberal here — likes to point out, almost all these individuals will eventually be released. More than 600,000 inmates are released each year. Around 70 million Americans have some sort of criminal record — 70 million. That’s almost one in five of us. Almost one in three Americans of working age.

Now, a lot of time, that record disqualifies you from being a full participant in our society — even if you’ve already paid your debt to society. It means millions of Americans have difficulty even getting their foot in the door to try to get a job much less actually hang on to that job. That’s bad for not only those individuals, it’s bad for our economy. It’s bad for the communities that desperately need more role models who are gainfully employed. So we’ve got to make sure Americans who’ve paid their debt to society can earn their second chance.

And as I said before, we spent the day seeing people who are doing just that — counselors; parole officers; small business owners who are giving folks a second chance; federal judges who are not only being smart about sentencing but are also helping, to the extent that they’re going into their own pockets, just to help somebody who is transitioning out get the right clothes for a job interview.

I’ve spoken to men and women who are part of programs like NJ-STEP here at Rutgers-Newark. You’re giving prisoners a chance to start taking college courses before their release so that they can re-enter society with marketable skills.

And I’ve had a chance, as I said, to speak with folks who are working hard to get back on track. And I just want to highlight a couple of them — I hope you guys aren’t embarrassed, if you’re here, because I’m really proud of what you’re doing.

Daryl Rose was arrested for a drug-related abuse charge in 2013, served six months in prison. Today he’s a member of Integrity House — that’s a treatment center that I visited earlier this afternoon — determined to become a productive citizen. And he’s getting the counseling and support that he needs to achieve his goals. And Daryl’s family is with him every step of the way. So we’re very proud of Daryl. (Applause.) I don’t know if Daryl is here. Are you here, Daryl?

Ashley Sinclair. Ashley is here today — I know that. Where’s Ashley? Come on — there you are. Stand up, Ashley. (Applause.) Ashley spent most of her 21 years on the streets, and involved in crime. Eventually, she decided she wanted something better for herself, joined a program called Project HOPE, impressed everybody with her work ethic. She earned a place in the Newark Department of Sanitation. And today, instead of getting into trouble on the streets, she’s earning a paycheck cleaning up those streets. So we are proud of Ashley. (Applause.)

We want more success stories like these. It’s good for everybody. It means less crime. It means less recidivism. It means less money spent on incarceration. It means less wasted taxpayer money. It means police aren’t having to arrest the same folks over and over. It means young people are seeing in their community people who are working. That, in turn, creates economies in those communities that are legal and not just illegal, which creates redevelopment for everybody. And now, suddenly businesses have more customers, which means they’re hiring more, and you get a virtuous cycle.

That’s why today, we’re taking two new actions to create more success stories like this. These are actions that I can take as President through my executive authorities.

Number one, my administration is announcing new grants to help returning citizens seize that second chance through education and job training and housing and legal help and children’s services. (Applause.) Five cities are announcing commitments of their own to help folks re-entering society to train for high-tech jobs. And we’re going to be partnering with them and others to try to make sure that the good work that we saw here today we can start expanding. All right, so that’s point number one, putting some more money in the system.

Let me say it’s nowhere near what we need, but it gives us more ability to create more programs that serve as an example of best practices so it can be duplicated around the country. That’s point number one.

Point number two, I’m taking action to “ban the box” — (applause) — for the most competitive jobs at federal agencies.

Now, the federal government is a big employer, as you know, and like a lot of big employers, on many job applications there’s a box that asks if you have a criminal record. If you answer yes, then a lot of times you’re not getting a call back. We’re going to do our part in changing this. The federal government, I believe, should not use criminal history to screen out applicants before we even look at their qualifications. We can’t dismiss people out of hand simply because of a mistake that they made in the past.

And I have to say that, although this is something that I can do on an executive basis, this is an area where Cory Booker, working with one of his Republican colleagues, Ron Johnson, are working to try to pass federal legislation — a ban-the-box bill that’s working its way through the Senate. I believe Congress should pass legislation that builds on today’s announcement. And keep in mind some really good, really successful companies are already doing this. Walmart, Target, Koch Industries, Home Depot — they’ve already taken action to ban the box on their own. And 19 states have done the same.

So my hope is, is that with the federal government also taking action, us getting legislation passed — this becomes a basic principle across our society. It is relevant to find out whether somebody has a criminal record. We’re not suggesting ignore it. What we are suggesting is, when it comes to the application, give folks a chance to get through the door. (Applause.) Give them a chance to get in there so that they can make their case.

Now, this is not just the only step that we can take. Just two weeks ago, Cory, other Democrats and Republicans moved through the Senate a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill. This is a bill that would reduce mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders. It would invest in law enforcement. It would reward prisoners with time off if they complete programs that make it less likely that they will commit crimes in the future. And there’s a similar bill working its way through the House.

I urgently encourage both the Senate and the House to pass these bills. It will not completely change the system overnight, but it will lock in some basic principles that we understand are going to make us a fairer and safer society over the long term. And I am very proud of the work that those legislators are doing. I’m especially proud because it’s not typical that Democrats and Republicans get together — (laughter) — on useful legislation — let’s face it. But this is an area where we’ve seen some really strong bipartisan work, and I’m very encouraged by that.

There are so many Americans who desperately want to earn a second chance. I already mentioned Daryl and Ashley. I’m going to call out one other person — Dquan Rosario. Where’s Dquan? He’s looking very sharp in his suit today. (Applause.) Now, Dquan was arrested for his first drug charge when he was 17. At 27 he received a 10-year federal sentence for drug distribution. In his own words, when he got out he was homeless, had no real legitimate employment history. And it would be easy to write Dquan off. More importantly, it would have been easy for Dquan to write himself off — or at least to say, there’s nothing else I know, this is the path I have to follow — going back to the drug trade that, unfortunately, he had been raised in.

But something happened inside of Dquan, so he had a motivation to say, I’m going to change — which is really hard to do at 37. It’s even harder to do if you’ve been through a decade or more of prison. So he got involved with a Justice Department program called ReNew. The federal District Court judge who presides over this program — Madeleine, stand up. I just want to give her credit. (Applause.) The probation officer who worked with him, Kevin, who helps run this program. (Applause.) This isn’t in my formal remarks, but I just talked to them. I just think everybody needs to understand what happened here.

So with the help of our U.S. Attorney, Paul Fishman — right here. Paul, stand up — (applause) — the Justice Department, the federal District Court judge, the probation officer — they all set up a system in which Dquan has a community encouraging him to move forward. If he doesn’t have the right suit for a job application, they’re helping him do that. If he doesn’t have enough money to eat that week, they’re seeing if they can scrape something together. If he’s interested in going back to school, what happened was, is that these folks helped to scrape together school fees for him, including through the Second Chance dollars that we generate through the Justice Department.

And as Dquan just told me, he said, look, I’m not saying that everything is easy; you’ve got to want it yourself. But because of the investment of these people who are calling him and bringing him in every couple weeks, and Kevin, his probation officer, is problem-solving with him on an ongoing basis — Dquan found a job in medical transportation. Then he pursued his EMT certification. Today, he is an EMT in Essex County. (Applause.) And instead of peddling drugs that are destroying lives, he’s saving lives. He’s making the community better.

And I just want to highlight this story because here you’ve got a situation where officers of the court, judges, probation officers, U.S. attorneys, pastors, community leaders, business leaders are all coming together saying, what’s the problem we’re trying to solve here? The problem we’re trying to solve is not just to keep on catching people and putting them back in jail. The problem we’re trying to solve here is giving people a foundation through which they can then become productive citizens. And the judge was mentioning how when she saw Dquan or some of the other folks who have gone through this program graduate, that’s the best thing that happens to her as a judge — because she understands that’s the goal.

The goal is to prevent crime. The goal is to make sure that folks are fairly punished when they break the law. But the ultimate goal is to make sure that folks are law-abiding, self-sufficient, good citizens. And everything we do should be designed towards that goal. (Applause.) And if we’re doing a good job there, then crime will go down and it will stay down.

That’s our goal — where everybody has a chance to contribute. And that’s what these outstanding folks that I met with here today are committed to. That’s what Mayor Baraka and Cory Booker and Don Payne, Jr. and others are committed to. That’s what I’m committed to. This is not easy. And as I’ve said before, we can’t have the criminal justice system carrying the entire load of solving all of society’s ills.

We’re a lot better off if we catch Dquan when he’s 5, or 12, or 18, than when he’s 37. We’re a lot better off if we’re investing in economic development and housing and jobs and adequate funding for schools, and making college more affordable on the front end. But Dquan’s story, like the stories that so many people in this auditorium can tell, is that it’s not too late. There are people who have gone through tough times, they’ve made mistakes. But with a little bit of help, they can get on the right path. (Applause.)

And that’s what we have to invest in. That’s what we have to believe. That’s what we have to promote. That’s why I’m so proud of what Newark is doing, and that’s what I hope everybody learns.

Thank you very much, everybody. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. Thank you.

END
4:37 P.M. EST

Bolding added.

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8 Comments

  1. President Obama also visited a halfway house while he was in Newark:

    (President Obama delivers remarks after visiting Integrity House, a halfway house in Newark, NJ. November 2, 2015.)

  2. Reaction from civil rights and justice groups:

    … while civil rights groups applauded the move, many had hoped for an even more sweeping executive order. The American Civil Liberties Union called the move “an important first step,” but called on him to follow up with an order that would apply not only to federal employees, but federal contractors. Obama has used 15 similar orders during his presidency to force companies doing business with the government to raise the minimum wage, adopt non-discrimination policies and grant workers paid time off.

    “While the president is with us in spirit, his administration is not yet ready to make an executive order a reality,” said Wade Henderson of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

    White House spokesman Frank Benenati said the president prefers congressional action on contractors “as the best path forward for making sure this effort will have the most significant impact and is written into law so it can last beyond this administration.”

  3. Tabloid news site Politico tries to attack the president’s initiatives on freeing non-violent prisoners early:

    A change to the federal sentencing guidelines enacted last year has resulted in the release of about 4,300 prisoners from federal custody beginning this week. Most of those impacted were Hispanic and African-American men imprisoned for low-level drug trafficking crimes.

    This is how Politico is covering the story:

    […]

    Politico’s decision to connect Obama to Horton is not grounded in facts. While Horton had been convicted of murder and was serving a life sentence, the individuals at issue today were convicted of various low-level drug trafficking crimes and were all scheduled to be released within a couple of years. Each person eligible “had to apply for early release and have a judge review the case, make a determination about public safety and sign off on reducing the sentence.” A full 80 percent of the people impacted “have been living in halfway houses or home confinement for the past few months, to ease their transition back into the community — so they will not go straight from prison to freedom.”

    • Apparently this is a “meme”. NPR had a story about how much more watchful probation agents will have to be (good) and that some of these releases will fail (true) and “worries” by Republican politicians (bullpucky):

      Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions expressed his worries about the prisoner release last month.

      “Put bluntly, when we release large numbers of criminals early, we know that a substantial number of those individuals will commit murders, rapes, assaults, robberies and other violent crimes that would have been prevented had they remained in prison,” Sessions said.

      Rowland acknowledged the system isn’t perfect. He said about 2 in 10 criminals under federal supervision are arrested again on felony charges within three years. But he said many of the drug offenders released recently would have gotten out anyway, eventually.

      “Some of these people are not going to succeed,” Rowland said. “And they wouldn’t have succeeded whenever they were released. And it’s our job to minimize the harm they are going to create.”

      Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, son of the Confederacy, would prefer that they stay locked up forever but fortunately that is not the way our criminal justice system works.

      • Charlie Pierce calls them “Tiger Beat on the Potomac” and finds reading them to be like “guzzling anti-freeze”. A few months ago, I thought I saw an uptick in good articles but they seem to have fallen back into the fever swamp. It would be where Chuck Freaking Todd would write if he wasn’t on the air.

  4. And voting rights restoration done right: Thanks To Virginia Reforms, These People Are Voting For The First Time In Decades

    Before McAuliffe’s reforms, felons in Virginia had a particularly hard time becoming full citizens after their convictions. In most states, voting rights are automatically restored once a felon is released from prison. But in Virginia, felons were required to first get off parole or probation, then file a voting rights restoration application with the governor’s office, a process that was supposed to take 45 to 60 days but often took much longer. Violent offenders were forced to wait five years to apply for voting rights. And all ex-felons had to pay off all their court-ordered restitution and court fees before they could be granted the right to vote.

    McAuliffe sought to loosen those restrictions. In April of 2014, he announced that ex-felons with drug offenses would immediately have their voting rights restored — no application necessary. People who committed violent felonies would have their waiting period reduced from five years to three. And this summer, the Democratic governor announced that Virginia would no longer require ex-felons to pay off all their court fees before having their voting rights restored.

  5. From Al-Jazeera, a report on what a second chance looks like:

    Last summer, the president granted early release to 22 federal prisoners who were jailed for lengthy terms on low-level drug charges. One of them was [Rudolph] Norris, who had waited more than two decades for a second chance.

    “When the [prison official] stepped in and said, ‘Well, I just want you to know that your pardon has been granted,’ I mean, I was lost for words,” Norris said. “He said, ‘How do you feel?’ And I jumped up and I was crying.”

    Since his release in August, Norris has already obtained his driver’s license and found temporary work printing T-shirt designs at a factory in Maryland. He’s still living in his brother’s basement, but he has his sights set on a place of his own.

    “I still believe people should have a second chance,” Norris said between shifts at his new job. “That’s the one thing I refuse to do is wear that label as a convict. I’m a person that just made a bad decision, and I paid a price for it.”

    And to those who say that these early releases will cause a spike in crime, a recent ACLU study showed that to not be the case.

    For a substantial number of offenders, there is little or no evidence that keeping them locked up longer prevents additional crime

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