Each year, hundreds of thousands of people who have spent time behind bars prepare for life outside of prison. President Obama just helped ease their path back to society by removing one of the major barriers to reintegration: a common part of the job application known as “the box.”
The new executive order to “ban the box” from federal job applications prohibits employers from asking applicants to fill out a box disclosing their criminal history. Advocates say “the box” needlessly deters otherwise qualified candidates while fueling the cycle of discrimination against people involved with criminal justice system.
Applicants for federal government jobs will not be asked about a criminal record until later in the review process. Although employers could still run criminal background checks on candidates, this disclosure would be delayed, and be regulated by federal anti-discrimination guidelines.
Though the symbolic measure is limited to federal employers—and not private federal contractors—it reflects reform initiatives across many states and localities to decrease mass incarceration, restructure penalties for nonviolent offenses, and promote post-prison reintegration.
Keeping an HR manager from rejecting someone, sight unseen, based on a single box, parallels recently updated Equal Employment Opportunity guidelines for civil-rights statutes known as Title VII. The rules protect applicants from bias based on a criminal record—based partially on the concept that using criminal history as pretext for exclusion may disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos, ultimately aggravating racial discrimination in employment.
Often, a past conviction should be put into the context of an individual’s life. For someone who has dealt with a background of poverty or a struggle with addiction may simply need a steady job to get back on track. Or the issue might have been resolved decades ago, but their record still follows them. Either way, the real explanation exceeds a box on an application form—an alienating preemptive interrogation that may deter many from even trying.
Yet this question is one of several ways many communities are boxed in from the start. Kids of color in aggressively policed neighborhoods are, for instance, disproportionately vulnerable to incurring trumped-up pot-related charges; they may be pressured to plead guilty to avoid a harsher sentence, and regardless of actual guilt, conviction may be all but assured if they can’t afford decent legal defense—institutionalized consequences that middle-class whites may never face for their youthful indiscretions.