A Pragmatic and Symbolic Decision: The Reform of Employment Opportunities Post-Incarceration

Sophia Zhu ’18
Assistant Opinion Editor

This week, President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting federal employers from using criminal background checks as an initial step of the hiring process. As part of Obama’s criminal justice reform, this move is expected to help formerly incarcerated people re-integrate into society.

Without the pressure of re-election, Obama seems increasingly assertive and bold in his policies. This summer, he became the first U.S. president to visit a federal prison, where he referred to his personal experience and identified with people being policed. He is also working on housing grants for newly released prisoners and the new sentencing guidelines, which, according to Washington Post, “could eventually see around nearly half of the 100,000 people in federal prison for non-violent drug crimes get early releases.” Contrary to former presidents who were often concerned over potential accusations of being soft on crime, Obama seems to focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

With the continuous decline in violent crime rate, however, Obama is certainly not moving against major opposition. The criminal justice reform has won bipartisan support in D.C., and most recent “ban the box” act (referring to the checkbox for job applicants to indicate their criminal status), along with education and job training programs for former prisoners, is popular not only among civil rights activists but also among ordinary citizens astonished and outraged by the racial biases in law enforcement and violent images of the police.

A report from the Center for Economy and Research Center shows that the growth of ex-offender population in the U.S. has negatively influenced the overall economy. Millions of working-age adults are unemployed and segregated because of their ex-prisoner statuses, contributing to not only a constant increase in unemployment rates but also high recidivism rates – a vicious cycle that harms the economy as well as the efficiency of the justice system.

Obama’s initiative is the first step in changing the status quo. Long-term unemployment has been proven to be a cause of various mental and physical problems, such as depression and a high heart attack risk. Formerly incarcerated people face both heavy societal pressure and financial burdens worsened by the barriers to employment. The criminal background check is often the first screening in the hiring process so that they have little, if any, chance to show their skills and qualification. Criminal justice reform, therefore, might prove a pragmatic coping strategy and navigate a relatively easier re-entry into the society, which can not only benefit the economy by introducing new inputs of labors, but also contribute to social stability.

Besides, as U.S. News and World Report remarks, this reform is personal to Obama, the first African American president in U.S. history. He has widely discussed his own experience of injustice in law enforcement and severe racial biases that still exist today. Citing his own drug experimentation when he was young, Obama has never avoided expressing empathy to non-violent drug offenders. The executive order against criminal background checks is still limited, but what it symbolizes surpasses its substance. It grants formerly incarcerated people an invaluable opportunity to show that they can be equally qualified and thus be allowed to re-enter the work force. The federal government doesn’t have the right to influence the employers’ final hiring decisions, but those who benefit from this act and are successfully employed can then gradually increase societal inclusivity and extend understanding to this group of people who bear double punishment – from legal measures like imprisonment and from the difficulties of reintegration that can push them further away from the right track.

Nevertheless, these policies have been widely attacked. Republican candidate for Louisiana governor, David Vitter, for example, produced an ad accusing the Obama administration of “releasing” thousands of criminals, echoing the sentiments of Republicans and conservative members of the public. How we treat former inmates depends on our interpretation of the purpose of the justice system. I wonder: if we distrust the rehabilitation and reeducation of those who have committed crimes, why do we spend a great amount of recourses imprisoning and disciplining them in the first place? What is the ultimate goal of incarceration? A criminal record should not be treated like a plague or an incurable disease.

I believe the equal chance to regain a decent life can facilitate a win-win outcome for our society. The delayed criminal record check may bring controversies, stir up worries, and incur financial costs, but as each policy involves benefits as well as costs, treating former prisoners justly and humanely is a meaningful decision from both a pragmatic and a symbolic point of view.

Leave a Comment