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Remove Roadblocks Faced by Former Prisoners Re-entering Society

This post can also be found on USA Today.

Every year, more than 600,000 people return to our communities after serving time in federal and state prisons, and another 11.4 million cycle though local jails.  Research shows that economic opportunity, education, strong family bonds and civic engagement are the pillars of a successful return from prison.  And in turn, successful re-entries reduce recidivism, improve the safety of our neighborhoods and provide economic benefits for our communities and our country.

But for far too many Americans, re-entry has become an all-but-impossible task because of what are known as collateral consequences: The civil sanctions and restrictions that are triggered by a criminal record and continue to penalize returning citizens long after they have paid their debt to society.  The more than 45,000 collateral consequences that exist nationwide too often restrict – and sometimes prohibit – access to jobs, housing, education, public benefits and civic participation, leaving returning citizens with a freedom that exists in name only and undermining our nation’s promise of liberty and justice for all.  As we continue striving to make our criminal justice system smarter and fairer, we must ensure that those returning from prison come home to a meaningful second chance.

The Department of Justice – and the entire Obama administration – is committed to expanding opportunities for justice-involved individuals throughout the U.S.  In order to highlight our ongoing efforts to improve federal re-entry outcomes and to raise awareness of the many issues facing re-entering citizens, the Justice Department designated the week of April 24-30 as the first-ever National Reentry Week.  In hundreds of events across the country – including job fairs, mentoring workshops for detained adolescents and mobile driver’s license and identification clinics – U.S. Attorney’s Offices, Bureau of Prison (BOP) facilities and Justice Department grantees are teaming up with other Cabinet agencies, courts, legal aid providers, public defenders and faith-based and community groups to send a compassionate and supportive message to returning individuals that they are not alone.

In addition, I was proud to announce on Monday that the Justice Department had released “The Roadmap to Reentry,” a major reform document that directs BOP to review the ways that it assesses and meets the specific educational, vocational and life-skills needs of each of its inmates, allowing us to achieve a clearer picture of how to best prepare each individual for success.  That same day, I sent a letter to all 50 governors inviting them to deepen their commitment to re-entry by allowing returning federal inmates to exchange their BOP identification cards and authenticated release papers for a state-issued ID.  And later this week, the administration will release more details about the steps we are taking to ensure that applicants with a criminal history have a fair shot to compete for a federal job.  Through these and many other initiatives – such as the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which I am proud to chair – the Obama administration is working tirelessly to promote better outcomes and help motivated individuals who have served their time to find employment, secure stable housing, support their children and families, and contribute to their communities.

Of course, the work to smooth the way home for re-entering citizens extends beyond the federal government.  Legal aid programs, public defenders and re-entry service providers do heroic work each day to mitigate the effects of collateral consequences.  A number of states have either narrowly tailored collateral consequences or eliminated them altogether.  And many employers, big and small, have begun considering applicants with criminal histories, including the 19 businesses that visited the White House earlier this month to launch the Fair Chance Business Pledge — which challenges the private sector to dismantle unnecessary hurdles to employment for those with a criminal record.

With the help of these vital partners, we have made tremendous progress, and we are proud of all we have accomplished.  But there is more to be done.  Whether returning citizens can find good jobs, locate decent shelter, access adequate health care, and exercise their right to vote is a question with enormous implications – not only for them and their families, but for all of us.  As long as we continue to make it difficult for those who have served time in prison to find their footing, we diminish our safety; hamper our prosperity; and, above all, compromise the ideals and principles that define our country.  That’s why all of us, at every level, must work together to give returning individuals the resources and support they need to make a successful transition: not just because it’s sound policy, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Updated March 3, 2017