WASHINGTON — Some members of Congress recently introduced legislation aimed at creating economic opportunities for ex-prisoners looking for federal jobs.
A bipartisan bill, The Fair Chance Act, was introduced last month by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
The measure would ban federal agencies from requiring formerly incarcerated individuals from disclosing a prior felony conviction until after they have already been offered a position of employment for the federal government. Positions in law enforcement or national security are exempt from the bill.
“This common-sense legislation will give those leaving the criminal justice system a fair chance to turn their lives around, and to contribute to our economy in a meaningful way,” Cummings said in a statement when he introduced the bill.
Many state and local governments, including Maryland, have already initiated similar so-called “ban the box” policies. Several private companies have also implemented these policies.
“It is high time for us to build upon state and local policies like those in Maryland and Baltimore,” Cummings said. “This bill will help us reduce recidivism, break the cycles of crime we see all too often, and make our communities safer in the process.”
Prison reform advocates agree that the legislation highlights the overwhelming post-prison challenges that devastate families across the country.
Gina Clayton, executive director and founder of Essie Justice Group, a California-based organization that provides support and skills training to women with incarcerated loved ones, said that many of those released from prison are men and return home to their mothers, daughters and girlfriends. These women are trapped into poverty when their male family members face economic and employment barriers after prison release, she said.
Clayton agreed that the Fair Chance Act would help families, especially women, by giving formerly incarcerated individuals a second chance.
“They cannot find a job because conviction is standing in his or her way to employment, “ she said. “That person cannot be the type of parent that he or she wants to be because of all the barriers that stand in the way to doing that. The woman that’s there is left with all of these responsibilities. The costs are tremendous.”
“(The Fair Chance Act) is something that I think is absolutely exciting,” Clayton said.
A study, led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design, all based in California, as well as numerous other community-based organizations, revealed that 63 percent of family members were responsible for the costs of lawyers and other court-related fees. Of those family members, 83 percent were women, according to the study, “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families.”
The financial burdens families face extend far beyond the costs directly related to mounting a defense in court. Prisoners are not always jailed close to home, so travel costs can be prohibitive. The study also found that 80 percent of those incarcerated came from low-income backgrounds, and 65 percent of the families studied were unable to meet basic needs.
The economic and discriminatory barriers that are in place after release further aggravate the cycle of poverty and incarceration, the report found.
The study also discovered that 67 percent of recently released individuals were unemployed or underemployed five years after their release.
“You get stuck in a vicious cycle,” said DeAngelo Bester, co-executive director of the Workers Center for Racial Justice in Chicago, at a congressional hearing about the study in September.
There were 21,335 prisoners in Maryland federal and state correctional facilities in 2013, according to the Department of Justice’s most recent statistics. That same year, 9,504 prisoners were released.
The nation’s large prison population remains an issue frequently discussed in the presidential campaign. Possible reforms to the criminal justice system were raised during the last Republican presidential debate in September.