When Johnny Perez left prison in 2013 after 13 years behind bars, he had to relearn how to live. Even being a pedestrian felt alien. "No one crosses the street in prison," he told Refinery29. "I remember just waiting for the red light to turn, and everybody else is crossing on yellow or green, just because there weren’t any cars." Readjusting to the routines of daily life would be hard enough without the challenges a criminal record can create. But things may be about to get a bit easier for ex-cons. On Monday, President Obama announced that he would sign an executive order aimed at helping people convicted of crimes get jobs more easily. Now, federal agencies won't be able to ask about an applicant's criminal record at the beginning of the hiring process. Background checks will still happen but, according to the new executive order, people can't be automatically weeded out of a pool because they checked "yes" in answer to the question "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" This is good news to the 6,000 people found guilty of nonviolent crimes who were released from prison in the past week thanks to recent changes to federal drug laws. More than 50,000 people could ultimately be eligible for early release under these sentencing reforms, leaving prison to begin new lives on the outside.
Doing that is a lot harder than anyone without experience with the criminal-justice system would expect. Public housing in New York City, for example, bans people with certain criminal convictions from living there, and shelters and halfway houses are often dangerous. Yet without a fixed address, getting a job is difficult. According to the Justice Department, between 60% and 75% of former inmates can't find work during their first year out of prison. "A lot people get discouraged real easily and say, 'You know what, I tried to do this. Nobody really helped me, and they just threw me to the wolves,' and they revert back to crime or find criminal solutions to their problems," says Perez, now a safe-reentry advocate with the Urban Justice Center's Mental Health Project. Groups including the Urban Justice Center, the College and Community Fellowship, and the National HIRE Network help people with criminal records get the services they need.
"The same kind of systems that are in place that are supposed to be helping people reintegrate can sometimes serve as a barrier," Perez says. For example: parole. Parole officers have enormous discretion on what they tell a former convict to do. They can set a curfew for a newly released inmate, or restrict him from seeing certain people, or restrict his license. In some cases, says Perez, "the stipulations that they place can be counterproductive not only to what they want and need but for just trying to be a citizen."
The same kind of systems that are in place that are supposed to be helping people reintegrate can sometimes serve as a barrier.
Johnny Perez, Urban Justice Center
But one of the biggest hurdles to reintegration has always been the question about your criminal record on employment applications. "When formerly incarcerated people started advocating for more rights, one of the first things they focused on was a 'Ban the Box' policy that removes the question about criminal histories from an initial job application," says Roberta Meyers of the National HIRE Network. "When people check that they have a criminal record, the application process pretty much ends there," she says. But if the question is delayed until applicants have had a chance to demonstrate their qualifications, or to explain in person the circumstances of their time behind bars, people with records are much more likely to get hired. Some states and more than 100 cities and counties have already banned the box, but Obama's order could push even more local leaders to adopt the policy.
"We can't as a society throw away people. We need to have a conversation about jobs and banning the box," Kassandra Frederique, a policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Refinery29. "It's about giving people the opportunity to get gainful employment and provide for themselves." Bringing more people who have spent time in prison into the conversation about reform, such as Perez or College and Community Fellowship's Vivian Nixon, is crucial, say advocates for the former inmates. "The advocacy around Ban the Box has really opened up a dialogue around the country about the challenges, the discrimination, and the lack of considerations that individuals with criminal records face," Meyers says.
We can't as a society throw away people.
Kassandra Frederique, Drug Policy Alliance
Although proponents are excited by the recent changes, they would like to see them go further. "It’s an amazing first step, but we need to have broader conversations about who is in prison, why they’re in prison, and whether we think incarceration is a suitable solution to the harms that have been committed," says Frederique. The larger problem, adds Perez, is "changing the hearts and minds of people, to treat people trying to reintegrate into society as just those who have [already] paid their debt."