Obama Announces Executive Actions to Help Prisoners Rejoin Society, Including 'Ban the Box'

Human Rights

Barack Obama will announce a series of executive actions to help current and former prisoners re-enter society on Monday, as the president continues his campaign to wind down the war on drugs and reform a “broken” system.

Obama’s plans include millions of dollars in education grants for current prisoners, new policies to help former inmates find housing, a “clean slate clearing house” to help former prisoners clear their records where possible, and a call to Congress to “ban the box” – the space on a job application that asks about criminal backgrounds.

Obama is expected to unveil the plans at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, the hometown of Democratic senator Cory Booker, one of the leaders of a bipartisan push for criminal justice reform.

The president has for months toured the nation in a loose campaign for reform, visiting police in Chicago, the NAACP in Philadelphia, and inmates in Oklahoma. On Saturday, he again raised the issue in his weekly address, saying: “We know that having millions of people in the criminal justice system, without any ability to find a job after release, is unsustainable.”

There are 2.2m people incarcerated in federal and state prisons around the US, roughly 20% of the world’s total number of imprisoned people. The number ballooned in the decades of the “war on drugs”, in particular due to “tough on crime” laws enacted during the 1990s.

Obama’s latest push for reform coincides with the early release of several thousand federal prisoners this past weekend. About 6,000 drug offenders were granted early releases thanks to policy changes by the US Sentencing Commission, which made the revisions retroactive last year. Judges then reviewed tens of thousands of applications, with the 6,000 federal prisoners the first to receive early release.

But despite the push for reducing mandatory minimum sentences – often seen as a major cause of mass incarceration over minor crimes – reform advocates around the country have called for more attention for former prisoners. About 650,000 inmates are released every year, and many return to an alien, hostile Americafacing bars to housing and employment and with little to their names.

In his weekly address, Obama said his executive actions were intended to “help Americans who paid their debt to society reintegrate back into their communities” and “reward prisoners with shorter sentences if they complete programs that make them less likely to repeat an offense”. 

The president’s most ambitious proposal – to “ban the box” entirely on the grounds that such questions foster discrimination – would also require help from Congress. A group of senators have advanced a bill on reducing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, but the bill has yet to face the broader chamber, much less the chaotic House.

In the meantime, Obama has directed federal agencies to delay questions about criminal records whenever possible during hiring.

The decision “is a win-win”, said Vivian Nixon, a former prisoner and co-founder of advocacy group Education from the Inside Out. “Formerly incarcerated people can access good jobs that help them stay out of prison, and employers can assess candidates on their merits, rather than counting them out for past mistakes.”

Nearly one in three Americans has a criminal record, and the Justice Department has found that employers are extremely reluctant to hire ex-offenders. The results of a 2009 studyfound that 60-75% of ex-offenders were jobless up to a year after release, and about 68% of former prisoners were rearrested within three years and 76% rearrested within five years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics

To help ex-offenders avoid the traps and hurdles of life after release, Obama is expected to announce several initiatives. He has asked the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to change its policy on how authorities use criminal records to judge a potential tenant, and ordered an $8.7m program to help provide housing for people who leave prison and end up homeless. 

Obama has also asked the Labor Department and Justice Department to create a “National Clean Slate Clearinghouse” to provide legal aid via re-entry programs and public defenders, and expanded programs to help juvenile offenders.

The Department of Education will award up to $8m to help eligible inmates receive an education in prison, and more than two dozen towns and cities are expanding tech training and jobs for people with criminal records.

Senators have floated several other reform bills, some aimed at reducing the $80bn annual cost of incarceration, others aimed at improving re-entry or policing. Booker has cosponsored a bill that would require police to report the number of people officers kill. The FBI lets police departments voluntarily report data, and in the absence of official records, the Guardian has tracked police killings around the US in 2015.

While Republican senators have proven amenable to criminal justice reform, Obama’s opponents at large have used the issue to attack him. Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor and presidential candidate, has in particular accused the president of not supporting police, saying in September that “lawlessness has been the rule of the day” under Obama.

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