Obama wants to help former inmates find jobs

Obama wants to help former inmates find jobs

At the same time as the Justice Department was about to release some 6,000 inmates from federal prisons, President Obama ordered federal agencies to stop asking most prospective employees about their criminal histories at the beginning of the application process. Instead, he said, hear them out, evaluate their capabilities and give them a chance to make a positive impression. Then check into their backgrounds, the president said. Activists trying to help former inmates reintegrate into society have been seeking this change for years. Obama agrees, saying that America “would be stronger” if it could find ways to help prisoners find paying jobs. But too many employers immediately dismiss applicants who are honest and “check the box” asking if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime. The president told an audience at the Newark campus of Rutgers University that “it’s not too late” for ex-offenders. “There are people who have gone through tough times, they’ve made mistakes, but with a little bit of help, they can get on the right path. And that’s what we have to invest in. That’s what we have to believe. That’s what we have to promote.”

Easing overcrowding due to harsh drug penalties

The Justice Department is trying to ease overcrowding in prisons by rolling back harsh penalties for nonviolent drug offenses, many from the 1980s and ’90s. The massive release of such prisoners, which began in November, is “one of the largest discharges of inmates from federal prisons in American history” according to a New York Times report. But the release follows intense bipartisan efforts in Congress “to ease the mass incarcerations that followed decades of tough sentencing for drug offenses — like dealing crack cocaine — which have taken a particularly harsh toll on minority communities.” Jesselyn McCurdy, a senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Times that the decision to release the inmates “is nothing short of thrilling because it carries justice. Far too many people have lost years of their lives to draconian sentencing laws born of the failed drug war. People of color have had to bear the brunt of these misguided and cruel policies. We are overjoyed that some of the people so wronged will get their freedom back.” The early release was greeted with praise by prisoners rights groups and others. But it raised concerns among law enforcement officials who are having to deal with increases in crime, including drug-related offenses. In this era of widespread unemployment, they say, many will be unable to get jobs and will return to drugs and crime. However, the new guidelines that have reduced nonviolent drug crime penalties also includes examinations of inmates’ behavior while in prison and some determination as to whether they’re likely to be prone to violence after release. Republican and Democrat lawmakers both agree that with a quarter of the world’s prison population, the prison spending in the United States (a third of the Justice Department’s budget) is way out of control.

Former inmates need housing as well as jobs

President Obama’s request that the federal Office of Personnel Management leave the crime question until later in the interview has actually been largely in practice for some time. But officials say the new rules, to be published in 2016, will require the crime question be delayed entirely until an applicant has been sent to a hiring manager. Hiring for sensitive jobs, such as law enforcement and national security, will not be held to the new rules. Obama could “ban the box” entirely, as supporters of the policy say, for federal contractors as well. But the president wants Congress to write such regulations into a law that will survive his presidency. And last month the president urged Congress to pass just such a bipartisan bill that was introduced in September. The president also announced a series of initiatives to help former prisoners obtain subsidized housing if they need it, as well as jobs. The new initiatives provide greater leeway for inmates to apply for housing as well as jobs without having to disclose criminal records. The president announced:
  • Federal grants to provide job training for inmates
  • Guidelines for authorities to help determine eligibility for assisted housing
  • Creation of a national clearinghouse to help former inmates expunge or seal records when possible
  • A program to help public housing residents under the age of 25 do the same

What this means to the treatment industry

We in the treatment industry have had our work cut out for us for decades, and there’s no letup in site. The easing of drug laws, and the influx of 6,000 more people into society almost overnight – most with a history of drug-related crime and drug abuse – sounds a small but definite chime of change. Whether that chime turns out to be a dire warning of bad news, or the dawning of new era, is at least partially up to us. By continuing to do everything we can to help our clients and patients recapture their lives, we will be helping make it a brighter, better world.

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