President Barack Obama recently announced his plans to “ban the box”—the box on federal job applications that requires applicants to disclose their criminal history.
The goal is to delay the disclosure of job applicants’ criminal records until later on in the hiring process in order to cut down on job discrimination against felons.
Having first and introductory federal job applications disclose an applicant’s criminal history yields to legal discrimination. Employers may automatically reject or ignore applications for felons—no matter how long ago the crime was committed or the severity of the crime. Felons who fulfilled their sentence—or, in the president’s words, “already paid their debt to society”—may find it difficult to find a well-paying job or career.
Because a disproportionate number of those incarcerated are people of color, this legal job discrimination against felons disproportionately affects people of color. The discrimination against felons contributes to the institutional racism of America’s mass incarceration system.
It is important that felons—especially those who were convicted of non-violent crimes such as possession and sale of drugs—have opportunities to improve their lives after prison. Because most federal jobs offer benefits to workers, cutting down on discrimination in federal jobs could greatly benefit the previously incarcerated who may be poor and would prefer a job with benefits.
This is in no way making sure that people with a criminal record are automatically chosen for all federal jobs they apply for. If a person was convicted of a crime related to children, an employer working with children should not be obligated to hire that person.
If convicted persons fulfill their sentences and need to adjust back to the world outside prison, however, they should receive a fair job application process. With this new ban on federal applications, those who may be a qualified candidate for a job may not be rejected on a first glance at their criminal history. Employers will be able to get to know them and realize their qualification for a job so that, when learning of their criminal history, it may be less important to the employer.
Because there is evidence about how mass incarceration and America’s prison industrial complex are institutionally racist and disadvantageous for poor people and people of color, it is important that legislation is changing to help the previously incarcerated transition back into society.