While speaking at the NAACP national convention earlier this month, President Barack Obama endorsed “banning the box” on job applications so that formerly incarcerated people, like me, have a fair chance at employment.
That was a great gesture, but the federal government still hasn’t caught up with the 18 states, 100 cities and counties, and major employers like Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Koch Industries and Target that are already open to job applications from people who have a record.
Like many people, I’ve made mistakes in my life. I used heroin, was involved in abusive relationships and served 10 years in prison. But I’ve also put myself on the right track, earned my GED diploma and taken college courses, and I am working at a nonprofit that helps battered women. Despite all those things, I probably still couldn’t get a job with the federal government.
That’s why I’m joining a demonstration Thursday at the White House calling on President Obama to issue an executive order to make sure that all federal agencies and contractors ban the box on employment applications and implement fair-hiring practices that evaluate people first on their merits, not solely on their criminal history. I won’t be alone; I will be standing alongside clergy, other impacted people, civil rights and labor leaders, and many more. More than 200 national organizations and 70 members of Congress have urged President Obama to ban the box.
I live in Washington, D.C., where we banned the box last year. Since then, employers with more than 11 workers have stopped pre-screening out applicants like me just because we were once incarcerated. The law, which took effect last year, has had a remarkable impact on our city’s ability to reintegrate people into society and provide work opportunities for those who most need them. But our city’s largest employer—the federal government—doesn’t have to comply.
At a time when 1 in 5 jobs are related to the federal government, an executive order banning the box would open the door of opportunity to 70 million people with records who are unfairly locked out of the job market. Federal government jobs provide ladders of opportunity, and many provide gateways to the middle class.
We often focus on the incarceration rate and the impact that biased policing and sentencing have on communities of color. However, the injustices of our system are much more widespread. Not only do we incarcerate more people than any place in the world, but we also continue to punish people long after they have completed their sentences.
Fair-chance hiring policies help reduce recidivism, and for formerly incarcerated people, having a job is absolutely crucial to successfully reintegrating into society. If we want to prevent people from falling back into the criminal-justice system, we need to give them the opportunity to work and support themselves and their families.
The president already agrees that our criminal-justice system is discriminatory, costly and unfair. Now is the time for the federal government to be a model employer, starting with President Obama’s taking action to give millions of skilled Americans a fair chance at employment and opportunity.
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Theresa Thompson is a formerly incarcerated mother, women’s-shelter worker and part-time college student from the District of Columbia. She was featured in the brief documentary Life in Transition: A Year After D.C. Bans the Box.