By Dorsey Nunn and Meredith Desautels
On the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” a group of formerly incarcerated people took a 2,400-mile van ride from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. They joined thousands of others to commemorate the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and to raise their voices against the disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people.
The action was particularly meaningful at this moment, as criminal justice reform has become the new frontier of the civil rights movement. Today, more African Americans are under the control of the criminal justice system–in prison or jail, on probation or parole–than were enslaved in1850. As Michelle Alexander so aptly describes in The New Jim Crow, while many Americans think race discrimination in housing, education, employment, and voting rights were eliminated by the civil rights laws of the 1960s, this discrimination now abounds under the exclusionary laws and practices mounted against anyone branded with the label “felon.”
Racial disparities exist at every stage of the criminal justice system, with people of color policed, arrested, charged, sentenced and incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates than whites. African Americans and Latinos, who currently make up 70 percent of California’s prisoners and parolees, have been disproportionately targeted and penalized. Those entangled in the criminal justice system face the impact of these racist policies throughout their lifetime, with millions denied equal access to education, housing, voting, and employment because of their records. This systemic disenfranchisement has thwarted reentry, belying any possibility of meaningful community reintegration and tearing apart generations of families and entire communities.
In order to end discriminatory reentry barriers and move towards true reintegration, we must treat formerly incarcerated people as people and community members first–people who are on the verge of success with the right support, and people who are critical assets to their families and our communities. Challenge the dominant narrative about formerly incarcerated people, and you begin to change the paradigm that governs what opportunities they are offered. That’s why we have to bring in formerly incarcerated people to speak in their own voices about their reentry efforts and the barriers they face. Right now, there are some 60 to 70 million formerly incarcerated people in the U.S. They hold the answers to how to significantly improve reentry; they have to be at the center of reform.
Done right, the reentry process represents an important opportunity to help people exit the system for good. The twin goals of reentry reform are to end discrimination and increase opportunities for formerly incarcerated people.
Employment is one of the most important factors in helping formerly incarcerated people reclaim their lives, reunite with their families, and reintegrate into our communities. However, most people with prior convictions find themselves severely limited by their records and struggling to land work, their hopes for the future shackled by their past. More than one in four Californians has an arrest or conviction record that can show up on a routine criminal background check for employment. The vast majority of them have not recently served time; their convictions may be decades old. Yet, once out, those with prior records will have a tough time finding employment, and are often barred from many occupations due to licensing laws.
One of the most visible and successful reentry initiatives in the country, the Ban the Box campaign, was started in 2004 by the Bay Area advocacy group All of Us or None, which puts the voices of formerly incarcerated people front and center. Ban the Box seeks to remove the question that asks about conviction history from initial applications for employment. Over 100 cities and counties, and 17 states have removed questions about conviction history from their public employment applications. In 2014, San Francisco adopted the Fair Chance Act, which also applies to private employment and affordable housing. Six states, Washington D.C., and 25 cities and counties now extend the Ban the Box policy to government contractors or private employers. Our next step is urging President Obama to issue an executive order to Ban the Box for federal contractors.
To expand Ban the Box and related protections, policymakers must call on employers to take a seat at the table of reentry reform. Employers have to view themselves as having a meaningful role to play–not their historical role of exclusion, but one of inclusion of formerly incarcerated people in the economic landscape of the country. And that pivot isn’t just about employers asking job applicants about their record later in the hiring process, a practice that can still lead to a rejection of qualified workers with records. Rather, employers also must begin to incorporate the new paradigm where formerly incarcerated people are viewed as individuals first, with talents to contribute if given the opportunity.
Another important policy milestone is the implementation of Proposition 47 currently underway in California, the nation’s largest record-change effort in history. Passed by voters in November 2014, the law gives people until 2017 to reduce six low-level, nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors, helping to mitigate barriers to jobs, housing, education, and more. More than one million Californians can benefit from this new law.
Removing barriers to reentry is not just good policy; it is also about human and civil rights, and affording people basic dignity as they seek to support themselves and their families. Reentry is not just a criminal justice issue: it is an economic and moral imperative. The population of people with prior records represents too great a wave of human potential to leave behind. Now, more than ever, it is clear that real progress is possible. Our recent policy successes prove that safety and justice can be achieved without sacrificing equality and fairness. Working together, we can continue to build on these reforms and begin to restore the communities that have been torn apart by the failed policies of the past.
Dorsey Nunn is the executive director of LSPC, and Meredith Desautels is a staff attorney in the Racial Justice program at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.