T’ruah applauds President Obama’s November 2nd announcement that the federal government will “ban the box” on most federal job applications, mirroring the work of legislative campaigns in more than 100 cities and states around the country. “Banning the box” means eliminating the checkbox on many job applications asking whether an applicant has ever been convicted of a felony. This significant step towards fair chance federal hiring will open up job opportunities for tens of thousands of people.
Jewish tradition teaches us that the purpose of punishment is teshuvah, a return to one’s best self. As the medieval authority Rabbi Moses Maimonides wrote, “Even if someone was wicked all of his/her days and repented towards the end of life, we do not remind this person of any of his/her wickedness” (Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:3) Forcing job applicants to out themselves as former felons before they even get the chance to interview and to demonstrate that they have turned their lives around serves to remind a person again and again of his or her crime and creates a significant obstacle to teshuvah.
We call on the federal government soon to take the next step of banning the box on all federal job applications as well as in government contracts, so that people trying to reenter the mainstream economic system following a prison term or felony conviction will have equal opportunities and the chance to support themselves and to stay out of prison
People with felonies on their record face significant legal and societal barriers to reintegrating into society, including difficulties finding housing and work and policies that sometimes ban them from certain state and federal benefits, including access to public housing, food stamps, and certain jobs. Potential employers often screen out applicants who identify themselves as former felons. For those who have paid their debt to society, the inability to get a steady job—or quite often, any regular employment at all—is one of the most significant barriers preventing them from rebuilding their lives.
The Torah refers to a person convicted and punished for a serious crime as “your brother.” (Deuteronomy 25:3). The ancient rabbis noted, “all day long, the text calls him wicked. . . But from the time that he is punished, the text calls him ‘your brother.’” (Sifrei, Ki Tetze Piska 286) Today, we must welcome those who have completed their punishments to rejoin society as our brothers and sisters who have the opportunity to work, to support themselves, and to complete their teshuvah.