Banning the Box: Why President Obama's latest executive order matters

This week, President Obama issued an executive order “banning the box” for federal employees – the “box” being the often employment-limiting, scarlet-letter that job applicants are required to check, indicating their status as a criminal offender...

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This week, President Obama issued an executive order “banning the box” for federal employees – the “box” being the often employment-limiting scarlet letter that job applicants are required to check, indicating their status as a criminal offender.

Praised by proponents of criminal justice reform, who have long sought to have the damning indicator removed by state legislators, the order now prohibits federal employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history “until later in the hiring process.”

Essentially, it will afford applicants with a criminal record a greater opportunity to obtain employment by removing what has long served as the initial step in many employers’ screening process, an applicant’s criminal history.

And the order was much needed.

Statistics suggest that, within the first year after their release from prison, 60-75 percent of people are unable to find work, presumably due to their criminal conviction. The exceedingly high rate of unemployment within this demographic has led to elevated rates of recidivism – the most recent reports indicating roughly 68 percent within three years of release – and works as a reentry-loop back into the world’s largest prison population.

In short, individuals with criminal records are twice faced with punishment for their crimes – first within the confines of the nation’s state and federal prisons and again upon release as they navigate an admittedly difficult re-entry into society.

Still, in a criminal justice system that ideally should hold rehabilitation and reintegration as its primary goals, President Obama’s “ban the box” order does more than give citizens a second chance at life – it helps return us closer to a balance between punishment and redemption.

Choosing Punishment

Despite the current climate surrounding criminal justice, the policies governing the system haven’t always been so punitive. In fact, until the early 1970s, rehabilitation – with the ultimate goal being meaningful, successful reintegration – was an integral part of prison policy in the United States; correctional facilities made it a priority to equip inmates with skills that would be transferable to the marketplace existing within the greater society. As a result, the period pre-dating the current prison-industrial complex saw a federal corrections population roughly 700 percent smaller than the one that exists today and a recidivism rate that was 7 percent less. Also different was a cultural concept of prison and prisoners. Despite some leeriness, there was a more present understanding and agreement that a criminal record did not define the offender, but a cultural shift, largely driven by political partisanship, would come to change that.

In what is called the “punitive era,” policies surrounding criminal justice adopted a more “tough on crime” approach. This came in response to the discourse of the time, which essentially deemed rehabilitative tactics ineffective, most notably found in Robert Martinson’s influential 1974 article titled What Works? The political and, consequently, cultural shift emphasized punishment as the primary response to crime – in stark contrast to years prior. Subsequently, there developed a greater social focus on punishing ex-offenders, mirroring the more punitive approach of the state. The social punishment, however, meant ostracization, leading to the current justice climate in which punishment takes precedent over rehabilitation and reintegration.

In practice, that would mean that, among other effects, ex-prisoners would be denied jobs based solely on their past crimes, giving way to the current higher rates of unemployment and recidivism.

That’s exactly why this order is necessary.

For the more than half-million individuals that are released from prisons across the country each year – many of whom are black – not being required to disclose their respective criminal histories up front could mean that the two-thirds who are expected to return to prison could find employment, reducing if not eliminating their chances of becoming repeat offenders.

Understanding the ultimate goal of incarceration, that is, to punish offenders for their crimes while restoring them to a condition that allows them to be contributing members of society after they’re released, it would make no sense to deny them the opportunity to hold employment on account of their criminal record. As a society, we should support any effort that seeks to maximize participation.

Do employers deserve to know the background of the person they’re bringing in and who will ultimately represent their company? Sure.

But a criminal conviction shouldn’t serve as an arbitrary barrier to employment.