Cory Booker: How to give former inmates a second chance

A formerly incarcerated person — and later President — named Nelson Mandela once said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

The American criminal justice system is predicated on this principle, the ideal that an individual who has committed a crime should pay his or her debt to society and then go back to work as a productive member of society.

But far too often, formerly incarcerated people with the greatest abilities and the loftiest ambitions discover that the physical barriers that confined them in prison have been replaced by subtle, but devastating barriers in the world outside that prevent them from finding work.

Over 650,000 people are released from prison each year in the United States, and many of them have worked hard to turn their lives around. It’s in their interest, and in all of our interest, that they’re able to do so.

Hiring practices often trap people with records in a life sentence of unemployment. If we are ever to meaningfully reduce recidivism and change the fact that a majority of people who are released from prison will go back, we must start by ensuring a fairer playing field for those looking to work.

The American Bar Association has identified over 44,500 “collateral consequences” of a criminal record. These legal constraints placed on what individuals with records can do once they have been released from prison in essence extend a sentence long beyond what a judge or jury has determined to be warranted.

Of these tens of thousands of collateral consequences, up to 70% are related to employment. A study from the University of Wisconsin found that a person’s chances at a callback interview for an entry-level job dropped by 50% when that applicant had a criminal history. And much like the criminal justice system itself, re-entry employment discrimination has a disparate impact on Americans of color.

That same study found that while 17% of whites with a criminal record were given a call back, only 5% of African Americans were given that same opportunity to continue in the interview process.

Fortunately, private sector businesses, along with state and local governments, are stepping up to help right this wrong. Companies like Starbucks, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Target, and Bed, Bath and Beyond, along with 18 states and more than 100 cities and counties, have made the decision to reform their hiring processes to give people with records a fairer shot to make a better life.

Specifically, many of these companies and governments have removed from job application forms any section inquiring about previous criminal convictions. By getting a fuller picture of job applicants’ skills and experience before learning about their past mistakes, employers are more likely to see applicants for who they are rather than who they were.

Thanks to these companies, states, and localities, attitudes are shifting and people who want to work hard to make a better life for themselves are getting a fairer shot. Yet, America’s largest single employer — the federal government — is behind the curve.

Currently, the federal government and federal contractors can still include questions on job applications about past convictions that can serve as scarlet letters for qualified candidates.

The federal government should exemplify best business practices when it comes to personnel management, not lag behind successful industry leaders. That’s why this month a bipartisan coalition of senators and representatives introduced the Fair Chance Act, legislation that would bar the federal government from requesting criminal history information from job applicants until they reach the conditional offer stage.

This would allow qualified people with criminal records to get their foot in the door and be judged by their skills, qualifications, and merits — rather than solely by their worst mistake.

For individuals who have paid their debt, successfully getting a job and reintegrating into the community as a productive member of society shouldn’t be an anomaly, it should be the standard by which we measure the efficacy of our justice system.

The story of America is a story of redemption. Foundational to our democratic experiment is the ideal that as individuals — and as a country — we have the opportunity and the power to recognize the ways in which we have failed ourselves, and each other, and work towards something better. As Equal Justice Institute founder Bryan Stevenson has said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

By promoting fair chance employment policies for federal employees and contractors, the federal government can help lead the way towards restoring justice to our justice system and empowering Americans who deserve a second chance.

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