Earlier this week, President Barack Obama announced a series of important efforts to improve the re-entry process for the formerly incarcerated. The United States returns more than 600,000 people annually who have done time to their home communities—often leaving them struggling to overcome the exclusion from higher education, housing and employment that results from their criminal conviction histories.
In response, the President has outlined several measures to promote reintegration, including educational grants for formerly incarcerated adults; arrests guidance for public housing; “Ban the Box” implementation on federal job applications; expansion of tech; training and jobs for ex-felons; and record expungement services for juveniles
The White House explicitly referenced these reentry efforts as being rooted in the work of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, however, there are specific ways in which many of these efforts could—and should—impact women and girls.
For Black women, who are disproportionately represented among the U.S. prison population and who experience a 1 in 19 chance of being incarcerated in their lifetime, taking full advantage of these re-entry measures could be an important opportunity to foster the repair of their relationships with families and loved ones, with institutions that had previously failed them, and most importantly, with themselves.
Black women and girls who are returning to their home communities after a period of incarceration, like their male counterparts, could greatly benefit from the opportunity to work in technology fields, and in other sectors that will provide the greatest possibility for upward mobility.
Women who are formerly incarcerated are often parenting, which means that their income is supporting a household, not just an individual. Improving access to career opportunities that extend beyond entry-level wages is critical to the successful reentry of women. Their status as mothers also influences their concern regarding legal barriers to reunification with their children, a complicated and compelling issue that is largely unaddressed by the stated priorities of the President’s reentry initiative.
Women and girls in the criminal justice system have very high rates of sexual victimization and trauma, which has placed them at increased risk of institutionalization. Including greater access to counseling and treatment, educational opportunity and specialized certifications, as well as secure housing for women upon their return to the community could be transformative and possibly even result in fewer children in foster care systems or the juvenile justice system in the long run.
Additionally, while the White House announcement does includes a reference to the need for “youth” in contact with the juvenile justice system to be able to seal and expunge juvenile records, the reality is that these young people also critically need to reconnect with education—an issue that seems to only be prioritized for adults. For Black girls in this system, many of whom have extensive histories of commercial sexual exploitation and victimization, jobs and schools are a critical pathway to success. We cannot leave our girls behind in this arena. Education is their passport to a productive future.
Indeed, there continues to be a need to critically link those with a criminal conviction history to a continuum of responses, services, and networks to build or rebuild their capacity to experience our society as healthy people and productive citizens.
Immediately following the President’s announcement, the National Employment Law Project which has been working with more than 200 organizations and individuals to advance fair employment at the federal level, issued a call for the initiative to include a more robust execution of its efforts to “ban the box” (or remove the inquiry about one’s criminal conviction history from the initial job application) by ensuring that agencies adopt the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines and extend these practices to include federal contracts.
This is a reminder that while the President’s initiative should be praised as a significant first step in paving pathways for people to return to their communities with dignity, hope and opportunity, we cannot lose sight of the work that is yet to be done.
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is the Co-Founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and the author of the forthcoming book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.