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'Ban the box' to help former prisoners stay on the straight and narrow

Attorney General Loretta Lynch tours a factory where

Attorney General Loretta Lynch tours a factory where inmates work during a visit to the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution in Talladega, Ala., Friday, April 29, 2016, to highlight policies that aim to reduce barriers for formerly incarcerated individuals. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

Just as Attorney General Loretta Lynch rounded her first anniversary as the nation’s top law-enforcement officer, she was on a national tour to promote her plan to help integrate people with criminal records back into society. As her weeklong tour stopped at the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution in Alabama a week ago, she joked to a group of inmates in a substance abuse treatment program that one of the benefits of being attorney general is “you get to pick a week — and name it something.”

And that she did. Last week was the country’s inaugural Lynch-titled “National Reentry Week.” The Department of Justice issued policies intended to lower barriers to finding jobs, housing, education and treatment for people who’ve served time, been on probation, or who have an arrest in their past.

The AG’s initiative doesn’t address race, which was the right judgment. But to the extent that people of color are disproportionately enmeshed in the criminal justice system, Lynch’s action is an important call for broader civil rights. She picked up the Obama administration’s baton to make it easier for people with records to overcome stigma and bias.

During this presidential campaign, our nation is wrestling with the impact of the 1994 crime bill, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, which resulted in mass incarceration, particularly of black Americans. The prison population rose 628 percent between 1970 and 2005, and black men account for more than 37 percent of the total population. President Barack Obama is using his final months in office — a time of relative freedom for a sitting president — to cement his legacy and to address issues of particular interest to African Americans.

“Yes, more people of color will be affected, because more are pulled into an unfair justice system,” said Monique Dixon, deputy policy director and senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, a leading civil rights law organization.

The DOJ is focusing on rehabilitation and ending recidivism by giving former offenders a greater stake in a better life. The action is one response to a new generation of activists loosely organized under the umbrella of Black Lives Matter.

Bennett Capers, a Brooklyn Law School professor, agreed that Obama is focusing more on issues of concern to AfricanAmericans.

“To fight the perception that he is a black president . . . Obama has had to work extra hard to appear neutral and race-free, i.e., the president for everyone,” Capers said in an email. “I think with his last year in office, a lot of that pressure has dissipated.”

One DOJ initiative listed in Lynch’s “Roadmap to Reentry” is expanding video visitations to its women’s prisons next month, and eventually to all of its facilities. The AG directed the Bureau of Prisons to figure out the details of how this will work in practice.

The program could allow some of the 2.7 million U.S. children with a parent behind bars to “visit” via video conference, strengthening family relationships. Lynch also has urged the nation’s governors to make it easier for felons to obtain state-issued identification after they get out of prison. Dixon said this would pave the way to opening bank accounts, obtaining housing and jobs, voting and applying for public benefits.

Lynch also has urged the federal government to set a model by waiting until after a job candidate has received a provisional offer of employment to ask about his or her criminal record — also known as “ban the box” for the box applicants must check on job forms regarding their criminal history.

Nearly everyone deserves a second chance, especially after having served their time. As a society, we shouldn’t make life so hard for people that their only option is to return to crime.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.