President Obama ordered federal agencies to stop requiring job applicants to declare on applications whether they have a criminal record — a move called “ban the box,” drawing fire from some conservatives for taking actions that may undermine bipartisan efforts to reduce prison populations.
The president visited a drug treatment and counseling center in Newark, New Jersey, and announced two executive actions that he said will help former prison inmates return to productive lives. The administration is offering $8 million in grants for job training, and the president ordered federal agencies to “ban the box.”
“We can’t dismiss people out of hand simply because of a mistake they’ve made in the past,” Mr. Obama said. “We’ve got to make sure Americans who’ve paid their debt to society can earn their second chance.”
Former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli warned that Mr. Obama’s overly broad approach to reducing prison populations could prove detrimental to that efforts.
“Public safety does have to be the top priority, and that doesn’t seem to be the president’s top priority,” said Mr. Cuccinelli, a Republican. “I really think he could end up undermining the efforts to gather up more Republican, and particularly conservative, support.”
The president said job applicants will still be asked if they have criminal records, but the question will come later in the interview process. He said the information is still “relevant,” but shouldn’t stop an applicant from getting a foot in the door.
There are 2.2 million Americans in prison, and Republicans and Democrats are examining ways to reduce the U.S. prison population through efforts such as changing sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenses. Criminal-justice reform legislation is being considered in Congress.
Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, praised Mr. Obama for taking “an important first step toward giving formerly incarcerated men and women who have served their time a fair shot at employment.”
“The president is intervening in the cruel cycle of mass incarceration and poverty, and we hope that Congress will join the fight with ambitious action,” he said in a statement.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the president’s action would ease employment challenges for many.
“Measures such as ‘ban the box’ are the right approach to ease the job hunt for working people with prior convictions,” Mr. Trumka said. “President Obama is taking important steps to help all people get back to work and become contributing members of their local communities.”
But Mr. Cuccinelli, a member of the conservative Right on Crime organization seeking reforms, said the president is hurting such efforts with his “typical” liberal rhetoric and actions such as the Justice Department’s release in the past week of more than 6,100 federal inmates nationwide under retroactive sentencing guidelines for drug offenders.
“The president makes it hard for the rest of us to trust him when he’s doing things like the 6,000-person release, when they won’t prosecute criminal illegals,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “It’s as if the criminals are victims. We need to remember the crime victims are victims. The safety of people’s neighborhoods and their families is at stake, and crime victims have a very personal view of a lot of this.”
The president said the goal of his effort is “to prevent crime” by helping former offenders become productive members of society.
“If we’re doing the job there, crime will go down and it will stay down,” he said.
Mr. Obama said he was encouraged by “very strong bipartisan work” on the issue.”
“It’s not typical that Democrats and Republicans get together on useful legislation, he said.”
The president also encountered some blowback from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a GOP presidential candidate, who criticized Mr. Obama for not supporting police.
“We have liberal policies that tie the hands behind the backs of police officers and then when incidents happen, accuse them of misconduct first and then do the investigation later,” Mr. Christie said on the “Morning Joe” show on MSNBC. “And you’ve got a president of the United States who does not support law enforcement. Simply doesn’t.”
Mr. Christie said the president came to New Jersey to “take credit” for the state’s dropping crime rates “because it’s one of the few places in the country where that actually is happening, when he has absolutely nothing to do with it.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest called Mr. Christie’s remarks “particularly irresponsible, but not surprising for somebody whose poll numbers are closer to an asterisk than they are double digits.”
“Clearly this is part of his strategy to turn this [campaign] around,” Mr. Earnest told reporters. “We’ll see how that works out.”