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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Obama takes smart step to help ex-offenders

President Barack Obama speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma in July. The president wisely continued his efforts to reform the criminal justice system last week by banning federal agencies from asking about criminal histories at the beginning of the job application process.
President Barack Obama speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma in July. The president wisely continued his efforts to reform the criminal justice system last week by banning federal agencies from asking about criminal histories at the beginning of the job application process.
Published Nov. 6, 2015

President Barack Obama wisely continued his efforts to reform the criminal justice system last week by banning federal agencies from asking about criminal histories at the beginning of the job application process. That should help stem the bias against ex-convicts who face exclusion from job interviews before they have a chance to make a first impression. This type of opportunity is exactly what ex-offenders need as they seek to find gainful employment and avoid a return trip to prison.

The president has ordered the federal Office of Personnel Management to put off questions about criminal history until later in the hiring process for most federal jobs. The order excludes work in law enforcement, national security and other sensitive positions, according to the New York Times. Criminal backgrounds will be examined after qualified applicants reach a hiring manager, which should help prevent discriminating against applicants with tarnished records. Most federal agencies had already taken this step amid a national campaign to "ban the box" on applications for jobs in government and the private sector. But the president's order judiciously puts all federal agencies on the same footing.

Obama also introduced several promising programs designed to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society. Among them were adult re-entry education grants that will award up to $8 million to nine counties that demonstrate successful prisoner re-entry programs and the expansion of technology training programs that will place former inmates in well-paying jobs such as computer coding and programming. Separately, the administration is seeking to address homelessness among ex-offenders, clarify rules for ex-offenders interested in living in public housing and other federally subsidized accommodations, and provide help sealing and expunging records, particularly among juvenile offenders. All are necessary steps to providing a hand up to ex-offenders seeking a fresh start.

The president's announcement came as 6,000 federal inmates were being released from prisons nationwide after having their sentences reduced by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The newly released were convicted of nonviolent drug offenses and, because of minimum mandatory sentences, received punishments that far outweighed their crimes. Their success now hinges upon being able to find housing and legal employment that pays a living wage and allows them to avoid the lure of the crimes that landed them in prison. The president's actions should help, but more needs to be done.

Each year, more than 600,000 ex-offenders are released from federal and state prisons. They join a population of 70 million Americans with a criminal history, including 20 million with felony convictions. Ex-convicts have a harder time getting a job than applicants with clean records, particularly when they cannot even get their foot in the door to get an interview. This leads to high unemployment among the group and increased chances for recidivism. Congress should pass the Fair Chances Act, a bipartisan bill that would ban the federal government and federal contractors from asking about criminal histories until an applicant receives a conditional offer. Local governments that have not agreed to ban the box on job applications should quickly get on board. It is in everyone's interest that ex-offenders succeed.