Justice for the formerly incarcerated close at hand

Reforming our nation's criminal justice system is critical to ending hunger and poverty in the United States.  Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World.

By Jennifer Gonzalez

As a nation, we are slowly inching closer to criminal justice reform.

The latest evidence is President Obama’s executive order that federal agencies stop asking prospective government employees about their criminal histories at the beginning of the application process. Rather, that inquiry would take place later.

The idea is to give formerly incarcerated individuals a fighting chance at a job. Right now, many employers take a pass at someone with a criminal history when individuals are honest and check the box that asks them if they have ever been convicted of a crime

Adoption of the “ban the box” policy has already taken hold in over 100 states and counties nationwide.

Finding a job after leaving prison can be a demoralizing and challenging endeavor. Without a job, those formerly incarcerated are not able to support their families and contribute to society as a whole.

“When people can’t work, they can’t eat. Right now, too many people aren’t hired because of a past criminal record,” said Eric Mitchell, director of government relations at Bread for the World. “The president’s action is a major step that will improve people’s ability to access employment and put food on the table.”

In fact, more than two-thirds of people who were incarcerated were legally employed before going to prison, and more than half were the primary source of financial support for their children.

At Bread, reforming our nation’s mass incarceration policies and practices is crucial to ending hunger and poverty. Individuals leaving prison and with criminal records are much more likely to experience poverty and food insecurity, partly because of the huge obstacles they encounter in finding work.

President Obama’s decision is timely given the fact that the United States Sentencing Commission announced last month that about 6,000 federal prisoners would be released earlier than expected under reduced penalties for drug offenses.

Other reforms are afoot as well. Congress is currently considering the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123). The bipartisan bill reduces mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, includes prison reforms, promotes programming for individuals currently incarcerated, and gives judges more flexibility when handing down sentences.

These policies are a more humane approach to criminal justice. More importantly, it helps formerly incarcerated individuals, especially those with families already struggling to put food on the table, lead fuller and more productive lives.

“While this bill won’t solve all the problems with our current criminal justice system, it represents a critical first step,” Mitchell said. “Reforming our criminal justice system is essential to alleviating hunger and poverty in our country.”

Call (800/826-3688) or email our U.S. senators today and tell them to support the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S.2123)!

Jennifer Gonzalez is the associate online editor at Bread for the World.

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