WASHINGTON — The Obama administration wants federal agencies to stop asking early questions about some job applicants’ criminal history, part of an effort to help ex-convicts enter the job market and decrease the number of those who end up back in prison.
A rule proposed Friday by the Office of Personnel Management would bar agencies from asking applicants about their criminal and credit history until a conditional offer of employment has been made. The rule, which would piggyback on similar efforts in states and in the private sector, would apply to hiring for the roughly 100,000 competitive service positions the government fills annually. It would not apply to many law enforcement, national security and intelligence posts, officials said.
White House officials said inquiries about criminal history can unnecessarily narrow the pool of qualified candidates and make it that much harder for those with criminal histories to support themselves and their families. Applicants can be removed from consideration even before agencies learn about the nature of a conviction or check to see whether an arrest led to a conviction. Officials said agencies could request an exemption.
“We’re focusing on how we can ensure that when the 600,000 people who are annually released from our nation’s prisons are released they’re able to thrive as productive law-abiding citizens,” White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told reporters as the White House announced the proposal.
The announcement was part of a broader campaign to highlight the importance of easing “re-entry,” the transition from prison to society that experts say is riddled with unnecessary hurdles that can keep people from finding secure housing or work.
Under the umbrella of “National Re-entry Week,” the Department of Housing and Urban Development released guidance on how public house authorities can use criminal records in housing decisions. The White House has created a federal re-entry council to look for ways to reduce hurdles for people leaving prison.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch sent a letter to governors urging them to make it easier for convicted felons to obtain state-issued identification after they get out of prison. Advocates say the lack of state-issued identification is another common barrier in getting a job or housing, or opening a bank account.
On Friday, Lynch toured a medium-security prison in Talladega, Alabama, to hold a discussion on re-entry programs.
The transition to work and housing has been the “biggest missing piece of our public safety” system, said Douglas Berman, a professor at the Ohio State University law school and an expert on sentencing and efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system.
“All these people get out at some point, and if we’re not doing things to increase the likelihood that they’re law-abiding, we’re increasing the likelihood that we’re throwing bad money after good,” Berman said.
It’s also an area more likely to yield common ground than the contentious debate over sentencing guidelines, Berman said. A bipartisan group of senators has been working for months on legislation aimed at curbing the prison population and scaling back sentencing for some nonviolent and drug offenders. The effort, which has been stalled since November, was revived this week when the group unveiled a new version of the bill, which also would create programs to help prisoners successfully re-enter society.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president plans to “devote a significant portion” of his remaining time in office to passing a sentencing bill through Congress.
Until then, President Barack Obama’s impact on re-entry programs is limited. Obama first issued the guidance on hiring and criminal history inquires last year. The proposed rule released Friday only formalizes a practice already widely used.
A separate bill, called the Fair Chance Act, would put into statute the requirement that the government wait to ask about criminal histories until applicants receive conditional employment offers. The House bill has yet to make it out of committee, though the Senate version has. Jarrett said the president supports the legislation.
Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland said “we have faced roadblocks” in Congress, so he has urged Obama to act where he could. Cummings said it was important to ensure “that a criminal record does not become a life sentence.”
In addition to the new rule, the White House has tried to urge the private sector to follow suit. This week the White House highlighted 112 companies and organizations employing more than 1.5 million people who have committed to ensuring that information about criminal history is considered in the proper context. Microsoft, Best Buy, Kellogg Co. and Catholic Charities were among those who committed to the effort, according to the White house.