A bipartisan movement has emerged to drive the important goal of making our criminal justice system more fair and effective. The broad consensus is that our system should be better structured to deter crimes without giving up on everyone who commits them, and should better balance resources to hold violent criminals fully accountable without imposing unnecessarily harsh sentences on nonviolent offenders. Our criminal justice system should be deeply grounded in America’s basic belief in fairness, public safety and redemption.
There is no easy solution Congress can pass, but there are common sense actions we can take to better harmonize accountability with rehabilitation in our criminal justice system. One part of this process should focus on helping the approximately 70 million Americans with criminal records remake their lives and achieve their potential through employment.
The most direct path to success is a good job, but unfortunately, getting a job for those with criminal records is a road often riddled with potholes and barriers that combine to form a kind of double jeopardy for those who have served their time and paid their debt to society. Breaking down barriers to employment will allow those with records to leave the past behind, help support their families and make a positive future, all the while improving our economy.
The chief barrier preventing those with criminal records from getting a job is what’s known as ‘the box’. Currently, many job seekers are forced to check a box on their applications indicating whether they have a criminal history. These boxes are often used as proxies for job fitness during the application process, and job-seekers with criminal histories frequently find themselves screened out of contention. As a matter of basic fairness, and also economic sense, it’s time to ban the box.
That’s why I am cosponsoring a piece of legislation called the Fair Chance Act. This bill, introduced by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey with several other Senators, would prohibit federal agencies and contractors from inquiring about job applicants’ criminal histories before extending a conditional offer of employment. This ban-the-box policy will keep employers from quickly denying applicants with criminal records who would otherwise be attractive candidates.
Employment is key to reducing recidivism and helping these families and our economy thrive. A study published in the academic journal Justice Quarterly found that having a job can reduce recidivism by as much as 20 percent for non-violent offenders. And research by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia found that employing 100 formerly incarcerated individuals increased their lifetime earnings by $55 million while generating millions in tax revenue and saving millions more by keeping them out of the justice system. Think of the benefits of extending new opportunities to so many millions of Americans.
And think of the cost of inaction: For taxpayers, who paid almost $7 billion in 2014 to house a federal prison population that has grown 790 percent between 1980 and 2013; for public safety, which suffers under recidivism rates in excess of 60 percent; and also for families, two-thirds of whom have difficulty meeting their basic needs as a result of a loved one’s incarceration, according to a recent study by the Ella Baker Center, and 70 percent of whom are caring for children under 18 years old.
Ronald Lewis, a Philadelphia resident arrested for two nonviolent misdemeanors over a decade ago, knows this struggle personally. Writing recently for Talk Poverty, Ronald described himself as “a father, a husband, a son, a friend, and ambitious to get ahead in life.” He earned a degree in building engineering and is now starting his own company. But he has also consistently faced rejection when “that question” about his background comes up. “So many doors have been closed in my face, I know what wood tastes like,” he says.
But Ronald has a prescription to solve this problem: “You want to know Ronald Lewis? Don’t focus on some piece of paper that says I made a mistake ten years ago. Look at all of the positive things I’m putting right in front of you right now.”
Leveling the playing field for the millions of Americans like Ronald is good for these workers and their families, good for the economy and good for public safety. This isn’t a complete solution. We have a lot more work to do, starting with reforming the sentencing policies that put so many people in prison to begin with. We also need to do more to ensure that the millions of law-abiding Americans who made mistakes in their youth are not blocked from the ladders of economic opportunity. But the Fair Chance Act represents a significant step forward for anyone with a record who might apply to one of the millions of jobs at federal agencies and contractors.
Fortunately, lawmakers around the country are getting the message, with 23 states and over 100 cities adopting ban-the-box legislation, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and others cities around Pennsylvania. I applaud their efforts, as well those of President Obama, who signed a Presidential Memorandum just a couple weeks ago that works toward the goals of the Fair Chance Act.
I was pleased to see the Fair Chance Act unanimously pass the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in October last year, and I will work to ensure this bill is voted on and passes the Senate. 700,000 Americans with boundless potential return from prison to their communities every year. They are looking for work and can’t afford to wait. They deserve a fair chance.