Eric Holder on Criminal Justice Reform: Make Second Chances a Reality


Legislative attempts to exclude groups on the basis of race have failed since Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed segregation, but we still have laws on the books that put communities of color at a disproportionate advantage. These policies often have consequences similar to the statutes that legalized discrimination against African Americans prior to Brown and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Too many laws and policy choices keep people who have been in our criminal justice system — a majority of whom are people of color — from getting a fair chance at true reintegration into society. 

For instance, if you have a criminal record — any criminal record — it can range from difficult to nearly impossible to find a job, get housing, apply for financial aid, or even vote in many states. And yet you are expected to “get back on your feet.” Combine these policy choices with the fact that African Americans are 10 times more likely to be arrested and four times more likely to be jailed than whites, and you have a system that too often locks people of color out of meaningful participation in mainstream society and the lawful economy.

When I served as U.S. attorney general, I asked attorneys general in every state and Cabinet secretaries throughout the federal government to consider how policies and regulations that impose unnecessary burdens on individuals reentering society, and that had no legitimate law enforcement purpose, might be eliminated. I consider this an extension of Dr. Martin Luther King’s work to fight for a society where structural disempowerment no longer exists and where equal opportunity is realized.

We’ve begun to see some progress: more than 100 cities and 19 states have passed so-called “ban the box” legislation, which allows people to have a fair chance at work based on their qualifications instead of being automatically excluded because of their criminal history. Just last month, a court in Pennsylvania struck down a law that imposed a lifetime ban from certain jobs on people with criminal records. And in places where these laws don’t exist, companies like Target, Walmart, Home Depot and Starbucks have taken steps on their own, such as asking about criminal records later in the application process.

Uber, which is legally required to run background checks on drivers, announced last week that it is tailoring its policies to be more fair to those with low-level, nonviolent criminal offenses in their past, like check fraud (Uber drivers never handle cash since fares are automatically charged to credit cards on file). The company is also actively notifying currently disqualified potential drivers about a new law in California that lets people petition to get their records modified, making it easier to find work. These are the types of proactive initiatives that will make our communities more inclusive, more just, and safer.

Opening up our communities and workplaces to formerly incarcerated people requires us to offer them a real second chance at meaningful opportunity. People must be held accountable for their actions and all of our communities protected. But once people have paid their debts to society it is unwise to erect barriers to reentry that have no legitimate public safety purpose. Policies that do so are oftentimes many years old and ingrained in our systems. That does not make them right. Indeed, they can be counterproductive and have the effect of making recidivism more likely.

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Source: USA Today

Eric H. Holder Jr., a partner at Covington & Burling, was the 82nd attorney general of the United States.

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