A significant portion of these criminal records are old or involve minor offenses, results of the prolonged "war on drugs" and over-criminalization. But in the lives of men and women, dads and moms trying to provide for themselves and their families today, they often create an insurmountable stigma and barrier to finding employment. Paul, like many Americans, has a personal connection to this crisis. In his case, a friend with a 30-year-old marijuana conviction still "must check the box" when applying for work. While testifying in support of sentencing reform at a recent Senate Judiciary hearing, Paul explained, "This is a lifelong problem, then, with employment. People talk about it. You've got to check the box that you are a convicted felon. And I think for a nonviolent felony, we need to get away from a lifelong punishment where you really have difficulty getting employment after this."
The Obama administration is taking direct aim at this crisis. Holder convened a Cabinet-level "Reentry Council" tasked with reducing barriers to employment for people with criminal records. Federal officials have pledged to turn the government into a model employer, and have issued a series of directives that break down walls to reemployment for people with minor offenses. In April 2012, for example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a landmark directive laying bare how criminal background checks disproportionately screen people of color out of employment opportunities, and setting forth clear guidelines for private- and public-sector employers to combat this discrimination.
The bipartisan movement has also taken hold across the states. In April, the Republican governors of Nebraska and Georgia, two deeply red states, signed legislation to reduce recidivism by helping formerly incarcerated people get back to work. Nebraska became the first red state to remove conviction inquiries from job applications for state employment. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal also pledged to "ban-the-box" by executive order. Deal's spokesperson provided a compelling justification for the policy: "The governor will implement ban-the-box at the state level and hope that private employers will follow suit. This will afford those with blemishes on their records a shot at a good job, which is key to preventing a return to crime."
Since Hawaii adopted the first ban-the-box policy in 1998, a total of 11 states and more than 60 cities and counties have adopted policies to delay conviction inquiries in the hiring process, including six states and nearly 20 cities and counties since 2013, reaching one-third of the nation's population and many of the nation's most diverse cities.
Some ban-the-box policies are focused on public-sector jobs, turning the government into a model for the private sector to follow, but a growing number ensure fair access to job-seekers in the private sector as well. Last year, the retail giant Target expanded the new ban-the-box policy in its home state of Minnesota to all of its stores nationwide, recognizing that a "nuanced criminal background check process "¦ gives qualified applicants with a criminal history a second chance" while maintaining safety and security.