By Bob Casey
A bipartisan movement has emerged to make our criminal justice system fairer and more effective. The broad consensus is that our system should be better structured to deter crimes without giving up on everyone who commits them, and should better balance resources to hold violent criminals fully accountable without imposing unnecessarily harsh sentences on nonviolent offenders. In short, our system should be deeply grounded in America's belief in fairness, public safety, and redemption.
There is no easy solution Congress can pass, but there are commonsense actions we can take to better harmonize accountability with rehabilitation. One part of this process should focus on helping the approximately 70 million Americans with criminal records remake their lives and achieve their potential through employment.
The most direct path to success is a good job, but the road to employment for those with criminal records is often riddled with barriers. Removing those barriers would allow those with records to leave the past behind, support their families, make a positive future - and improve our economy.
The chief barrier is what's known as "the box." Currently, many job seekers must check a box on their applications indicating whether they have a criminal history. These boxes are often used as proxies for job fitness, and job-seekers with criminal histories frequently find themselves screened out of contention. As a matter of basic fairness and also economic sense, it's time to ban the box.
That's why I am cosponsoring the Fair Chance Act. This bill, introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) with several other senators, would prohibit federal agencies and contractors from inquiring about job applicants' criminal histories before extending a conditional offer of employment. This ban-the-box policy will keep employers from quickly denying applicants with criminal records who would otherwise be attractive candidates.
Employment is key to reducing recidivism. A study published in the academic journal Justice Quarterly found that having a job can reduce recidivism by as much as 20 percent for nonviolent offenders. And research by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia found that employing 100 formerly incarcerated individuals increased their lifetime earnings by $55 million while generating millions in tax revenue and saving millions more by keeping them out of the justice system. Think of the benefits of extending new opportunities to so many millions of Americans.
And think of the cost of inaction: for taxpayers, who paid almost $7 billion in 2014 to house a federal prison population that grew 790 percent between 1980 and 2013; for public safety, which suffers under recidivism rates in excess of 60 percent; and for families, two-thirds of whom have difficulty meeting their basic needs as a result of a loved one's incarceration, according to a recent study by the Ella Baker Center, and 70 percent of whom are caring for children under 18 years old.
Ronald Lewis, a Philadelphia resident arrested for two nonviolent misdemeanors over a decade ago, knows this struggle personally. Writing recently for Talk Poverty, a project of the Center for American Progress, Lewis described himself as "a father, a husband, a son, a friend, and ambitious to get ahead in life." He earned a degree in building engineering and is now starting his own company. But he has also consistently faced rejection when questioned about his background. "So many doors have been closed in my face, I know what wood tastes like," he says.
But Lewis has a prescription to solve this problem: "You want to know Ronald Lewis? Don't focus on some piece of paper that says I made a mistake 10 years ago. Look at all of the positive things I'm putting right in front of you right now."
The Fair Chance Act is a significant step forward, but it's just a start. We need to ensure that the millions of law-abiding Americans who made mistakes in their youth are not blocked from the ladders of economic opportunity. We must also reform the sentencing policies that put so many people in prison.
So far, 23 states and more than 100 cities have adopted ban-the-box legislation, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and other cities around Pennsylvania. I applaud their efforts, as well those of President Obama, who signed a presidential memorandum just weeks ago that works toward the goals of the Fair Chance Act.
The Fair Chance Act passed the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs unanimously in October, and I will work to ensure that this bill passes the Senate. About 700,000 Americans with boundless potential return from prison to their communities every year. They are looking for work and deserve a fair chance.