A Second Chance

People who have paid their debt to society this week got a significant opportunity and a second chance at putting their lives back together. Recently, President Obama announced that his administration would "ban the box" for federal employment. What this means is that criminal record inquires will now take place once the hiring process has moved past the initial stages. Up to now, applicants were eliminated if the checked the box affirming that they had a prior criminal conviction. The change gives individuals the opportunity to tell their story, in their own words, and explain why they are the best person for the job--rather than being screened out immediately.

It is not an overstatement to say that our country is addicted to jails and prisons and it's a habit that we must break.

According to a report released by the National Research Council, although the United States is home to about 5% of the world's population, 1/4 of the world's prison population is incarcerated in America's prisons. We imprison more people per capita than any other country in the world - surpassing Russia, China and Iran. To give some perspective, Germany incarcerates 78 people for every 100,000 of its citizens. The United States incarcerates 707 people for every 100,000 citizens. That is nearly ten times greater than Germany. In Colorado, 25 parolees are released onto our streets daily.

Withholding employment all but guarantees continued growth in recidivism. This is not an "us" versus "them" debate. In a clear statement that he understands the need for a holistic approach to the criminal justice crisis in our country, President Obama also announced increased funding opportunities for public housing and money for re-entry programs.

America's "tough on crime" era must come to a close. It has devastated families and wreaked havoc on state budgets. It has absolutely not made our communities safer. Indeed, for the sake of public safety, we must break this cultural acceptance to incarceration. In a statement released by the ACLU of Colorado, Denise Maes, public policy director, stated that 97% of Colorado's prison population will be released into our communities and live as our neighbors. It is therefore imperative that all of us work to integrate these individuals into our community and help them become contributing members of our society.

President Obama's recent commitment to reform shows he does not just talk the walk. By directing Federal agencies to delay criminal background checks, more people have opportunities for gainful employment, which leads to healthy productive lives. Getting a job upon release from prison is no easy feat. Virtually every job application - whether it be for dog catcher, bus driver, accountant or grocery store cashier, asks the applicant to "check the box" on whether they have been convicted of a crime. The President's attempt to "ban the box" is a step in the right direction. But we in Colorado can do more and we should. We cannot continue to ignore this issue.

An individual's criminal record may still be considered when the applicant is a serious candidate. However, now the employer can consider the nature of the offense, the time that has lapsed since the conviction and the nature of the job sought. In other words, blatant discrimination is prohibited against those who have paid their debt to society and are attempting to integrate and truly want a second chance.

There is some growing advocacy around "ban the box" laws. Colorado enacted such a law for purposes of state employment, but didn't go far enough. Private employers may still discriminate on the basis of a past criminal conviction and so can vendors that contract with the state. This is despite the fact that the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission has declared that this practice may be illegal under many circumstances.

Colorado needs to have a real conversation about breaking our addiction to incarceration and take the next step to "ban the box". We must understand that all crimes are not equal. And second chances can lead to stronger communities.

Leslie Herod is a community activist and former senior policy advisor for Governor Ritter. She is running for state House District 8 in Northeast Denver.