Momentum grows for “ban the box” initiatives in time for mass prisoner release

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Last month, thousands of prisoners were released after changes to federal drug penalties made by the US Sentencing Commisison. But for many, release came as a double-edged sword. Because while there is little doubt that their freedom has been a source of great celebration, they must also face the biggest question of all: what comes next? For those for whom release came as a surprise, of sorts, they may not have even had time to consider how they will adapt to the dramatic changes ahead. And even for those who have had that time, many have been hampered by the lack of options available to them to assist in that process.

As I’ve discussed before as regards some of those individuals freed through the granting of clemency, when the initial excitement over release dies down, former prisoners often find themselves adrift. With little training and few skills, re-entering society and trying to contribute positively is no easy feat. Not least among the obstacles faced is the “box” effect, namely efforts made by some employers to weed out anyone with a prior criminal conviction, regardless of its relevance (or lack thereof) to performing the duties of the job.

In fortuitous timing, President Obama has announced his intention to remedy this situation. Obama has directed federal hiring departments to “ban the box,” meaning that inquiries into one’s conviction history are to take place only later in the hiring process, when (and if) it is determined to be relevant to the performance of duties. But the reality is that the number of jobs with federal agencies for which former prisoners would be applying represent a mere drop in the bucket in their job market.

The movement has been gaining support, with involuntary initiatives to remove it from job applications being undertaken by major players like Walmart, Target, and Home Depot. But the most powerful message would come from Congress itself, were they to pass the Fair Chance Act, which “would ban the federal government and federal contractors from requesting criminal history information until they reach the conditional offer stage.” In doing so, the federal government would provide the legal and moral framework for states to pass their own versions. New York State’s law doing just that, went into effect on October 27th. 

It’s probably one of the simplest and most meaningful actions governments can take when it comes to reducing recidivism, and it takes so little effort to bring it to fruition. For more information on national “ban the box” efforts, visit: