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Commentary: Reformed offenders deserve a 'fair chance'

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For those of us working on the front lines of the criminal justice system, it’s encouraging to hear that the governor’s Justice Reform Steering Committee is once again giving the Justice Reinvestment Initiative the attention it deserves.

Given our current budget woes, it remains vitally important for the fiscal health of our state that policies be implemented to give the initiative substance despite being problematic to fund. The committee and Legislature must be creative in developing the cost-effective policies needed for the initiative to fulfill its purpose.

A centerpiece of our justice reform effort is to reduce the rate of recidivism, the number of people who return to prison either for reoffending or not complying with the terms and conditions of their release.

According to National Employment Law Project, the most important factor in reducing recidivism is employment.

Two years after release from prison, nearly twice as many employed people with criminal records avoided contact with law enforcement compared to their unemployed counterparts.

For the initiative to achieve recidivism reductions, the committee must focus on advancing policies that provide job placement to those people routinely excluded because of their criminal records and the use of criminal history screenings as a part of job applications. Criminal history screenings not only result in excluding someone otherwise qualified from much-needed employment but discourage someone from filling out applications to begin with. As a consequence, the screenings become a roadblock to reducing recidivism.

One cost-free solution, known as a “ban the box” or “fair chance” policy, is a program that removes the stigma of a criminal record from the application process and increases the pool of qualified applicants. Because arrest and incarceration rates for Hispanic and African-American men are two to three times higher than the general population, the use of criminal history screening disproportionately impacts groups protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“Fair chance” policies are adapted from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC recommends that employers eliminate policies that exclude applicants based solely on having a criminal record. In addition, employers should limit criminal history inquiries to records for which the exclusion is job-related and consistent with a business necessity.

“Fair chance” policies protect employers from discrimination claims, increase public safety, are good for the local economy and don’t cost a dime.

Although having a job is no guarantee that someone won’t reoffend, a steady job helps to change one’s environment and provide financial support and instills a sense of self-worth, dignity and hope for the future.

Providing a large segment of the working-age population with criminal records the opportunity to compete for jobs based on their qualifications will kick-start justice reform in this state.

Giving someone a fair chance to work is an Oklahoma value on which we can all agree.

Kevin McCray is an attorney working in Oklahoma City.

Print headline: ‘Fair chance’ justice reform

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