Last month, the president hosted a surprise meeting with former federal inmates who had been invited to the White House.
While a visit to the White House is humbling for any visitor, one invitee, Phillip Emmert, captured the excitement when he said “All of a sudden, the door bursts open and we hear, ‘How’s everyone doing?’ And the president walks in.”
Emmert, who served 14 years for sale of methamphetamines, was one of seven invitees who were also treated to an impromptu lunch meeting with the president, where each was able to discuss their experiences in the criminal justice system.
For many Americans, the criminal justice system is a revolving door where they are released from custody one month, only to return months later after committing new offenses. But let’s cut to the chase — for Black Americans, the revolving door is rooted in white supremacy and laws designed to relegate blacks to second class citizenship status. Just look at a history book.
According to Douglas Blackmon, author of “Slavery by another name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” by the mid-1890’s, most Southern states mandated felony offenses for vagrancy, loitering and theft and targeted blacks in their enforcement. Such non-violent crimes allowed Southern authorities to arrest black males on a whim for merely standing idly by. Further, many of these same states automatically disqualified convicted felons from voting. By the turn of the 20th century, black prisoners often found themselves relegated to “Convict Leasing,” a system run by local sheriffs who made considerable wealth leasing prisoners to farms, logging companies, and construction firms.
Many of these practices have remained essentially intact even 50 years after the conclusion of the Civil Rights Movement. Former felons of all races still must endure the Herculean task of trying to get their civil rights restored after paying their debt to society. When it comes to education, Congress during the 1990s forbade felons from obtaining Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid for higher education. In the realm of employment, background checks have often disqualified job applicants from the outset, and former felons are often left with the prospect of no education or job opportunities upon release from prison.
The same holds true for housing, too, as both public housing officials and private apartment owners have often refused to lease premises to former felons; some have gone as far as to prevent lease-holders from allowing their relatives or friends who are former felons to live on site as well.
To his credit, over the past five years, the Obama administration has taken steps to address these decades-old issues. Recently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) suggested that per the Fair Housing Act, that private landlords cannot use mere arrests as bars to leasing, while further providing that landlords must consider the severity of the criminal offense for former felons when evaluating lease applications. Last year, HUD mandated that public housing agents end the practice of “one strike” rules that often led to automatic evictions for individuals charged with felony offenses.
The Obama administration has also set the standard for the growing “ban the box” movement across America, where many local governments have eliminated questions about past crimes on job applications, leaving the background check to come later in the hiring process. Such measures at least allow former felons an opportunity to get a foot in the door and explain their past transgressions as opposed to a summary “no.” When asked about the importance of President Obama’s efforts, Angela Jenkins, one of the attendees, said “I was telling President Obama about the difference it’s made to have a job waiting for me already when I got out.”
For those of us who labor in the criminal justice system, it is clear that education and job opportunities greatly diminish a former felon’s return to prison upon release. It is interesting to note that this year, Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders has drawn criticism for his support of the 1994 Crime Bill that disproportionately hurt the black community, while his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has drawn even harsher criticism for her “super-predator” comment from 1994 in support of her husband, Bill Clinton, signing the same into law. Moving forward, with black voters being critical for the success of either candidate this fall, it is imperative that the eventual nominee and the Democratic Platform that will be adopted this summer in Philadelphia focus upon helping former felons in their transition back into mainstream society.
Chuck Hobbs is a lawyer, social activist and freelance writer who won the Florida Bar Media Award in 2010 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in commentary by the Tallahassee Democrat in 2011. Follow him on Twitter @RealChuckHobbs