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TRNN executive producer Eddie Conway talks to the ACLU’s Toni Holness about the implications of a federally mandated “Ban the Box” act.

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EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN: I’m Eddie Conway with the Real News Network in Baltimore. Today President Obama announced an executive order that will help former prisoners transition back into the workforce with less limitations. The federal Ban the Box initiative would ban employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history at the beginning of the hiring process. Known to some locals as a Fair Chance Act, 19 states including Maryland have similar laws on the books. Joining me to discuss this is Maryland ACLU public policy associate Toni Holness. Thank you for joining me, Toni. TONI HOLNESS: Thank you so much for having me, Eddie. It’s good to talk to you again. CONWAY: Okay. Some of our viewers might not know what Ban the Box means. Could you explain what that is? HOLNESS: Sure. Ban the Box refers to an effort to limit employers’ ability to inquire into an individual–into a candidate’s criminal history. And that could take place at any point in the application process. It could be from the point at which the employer sends out an application request, or a request for applications, or it could be at the interview stage. So it could really happen at any point along the trajectory of the employment process. And the goal is really to expand the opportunities that folks with criminal histories have as far as the job market is concerned. CONWAY: Okay. So what’s the far-reaching implications this will have for thousands of ex-felons that are trying to enter the workforce? HOLNESS: Sure. Now, the potential is really vast, you know, because the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction can be devastating for an individual, really, because it can preclude that person from getting a job. Even jobs that one would consider easy to get, you know, that are not very strenuous as far as credentials are concerned. But you know, the implications of banning the box are really–they ripple out, outward from the individual. So you know, the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction not only bar an individual from getting job opportunities, scholarship opportunities, accessing some public benefits. But also when an individual is unable to secure a well-paying job, you know, that really can impact the financial stability of that person’s entire household. And when you consider that communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system you will quickly see that the result has been a almost, near wholesale socioeconomic disenfranchisement of communities of color who have been disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. So the impact to undo some of those effects really is, is an exciting one. CONWAY: Okay. Well, it seems that Obama’s initiative also includes, like, programs that will give training and educational benefits. Also will change the conditions in which prisoners are finding themselves in when they try to get housing once they return to society. But how are these initiatives any different from present federal programs that exist today? HOLNESS: I think, to your point of how, you know–to the issue of what difference this will make, I think, you know, we really have to–if the president’s policy does what it is touted to be doing, then that is a wonderful thing and it should be lauded. But it is, it is not–it is unacceptable, I think, for our leaders to create and in fact exacerbate a socioeconomic crisis amongst communities of color and then pat themselves on the back for taking baby steps to fix it. And what I’m referring to is really the front end of the criminal justice system. The best re-entry policy would be to prevent folks from being entangled in the criminal justice system to begin with, right. We need to look at overhauling our criminal laws that sweep people up unnecessarily in the criminal justice system for unconscionably long sentences, very often for minor offenses. And we need to look at the way we police our communities, especially communities of color, in ways that disproportionately impact people of color. So I think in terms of what the efficacy is, if the goal is to be really effective then we need to be looking at the broad range. We can’t wait until we’ve already swept folks up in the criminal justice system to then take steps to sort of walk back from the damage at that point. CONWAY: Yes, it’s funny, because one of the things that I was looking at earlier was an article that was saying that at least 600,000 prisoners are released every year, and since those, that 2.3 figure kind of stayed consistent, it’s clear that 600,000 prisoners must be going into the prison system every year. And so I was looking at that in relationship to how the public defenders’ caseload impacts upon that flood into the system. And I see cases where there’s, like, one public defender might have 450 cases a year. Some public defenders have as much as 500 cases a year. And so they are forcing people to plea bargain, or they’re just letting people slide into the system without giving them any kind of real support in terms of their criminal justice relief. Could something–and I think that’s what you were inferring, that something needs to be done on that end, before they go into the system. HOLNESS: Right. You know, Eddie, I think this is just one other dimension of the disenfranchisement of communities of color. You know, it’s bad enough that they are swept up into the criminal justice system. That they are overpoliced, let’s even start there, overpoliced and badly policed, and as a result are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. But even once they become entangled in the criminal justice system, we have a public defense system that is incredibly under-resourced. The very best lawyer that you could have with an incredibly high caseload is not going to be able to provide you effective representation. And that’s just a reality. There’s always a temptation to sort of demonize the public defenders, but many of them are hardworking people who really want to do the right thing. But it’s just near impossible with the caseload that they are working with. And so what you find is that poor folks very likely do not fare as well in the criminal justice system as others who are maybe able to hire an attorney, a private attorney, who does not have nearly as high a caseload. CONWAY: Okay. Well, is banning the box an important step toward reducing recidivism? HOLNESS: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, you know, if someone is out of, coming out of the criminal justice system, and they are unable to get a job, it is, it would be naïve of us as a community to expect them to do anything but revert to the, really only access that they have to engaging in our capitalist system, which is through an illicit trade. If one does not have access to an above-ground means of gaining income, then we’ve really left folks with no choice. And so it’s absolutely important that folks have opportunities to employment, education, to other sources, pardon me, of public benefits in order to get back on their feet and to remain out of the criminal justice system. CONWAY: Okay. Thank you for joining me, Toni. HOLNESS: Thank you so much for having me, Eddie. Take good care. CONWAY: Okay. And thank you for joining the Real News.


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Toni Holness is the Public Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Maryland. She advocates for reform in the Maryland General Assembly on a range of issues, including freedom of expression, criminal justice, reproductive freedom, and other civil liberties issues. Before joining the ACLU, she was a Staff Attorney with Maryland Legal Aid and a Women's Law and Public Policy Fellow at Georgetown University Law Center. She is a graduate of Temple University, where she completed a Master of Arts in Economics alongside her law degree. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania.