The Washington Post recently reported the Justice Department's early release of about 6,000 federal prisoners from Oct. 30-Nov. 2nd, 2015 — representing the largest one-time release of federal prisoners. The move was aimed at easing overcrowding in federal prisons and at providing relief to those who had received draconian sentences due to the War on Drugs. Most of the returning former prisoners will go to halfway houses or to house arrest before being released on parole.
The en masse release of these federal prisoners has caught the attention of the public. But that is neither the real problem nor the solution to the pressing issue of mass incarceration. In fact, many more prisoners are released every year. Each year over 630,000 individuals will return from prison and other correctional institutions. About 93 percent of the people in prison will eventually come home. And many prisoners, about 40 percent, are released within 12 months on incarceration.
The real problem is that the former prisoners returning home may not be able to attend college. Most will be met with the cold hard fact that, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, over 60 percent of colleges include a conviction question on their applications for admission. The public will have to share the negative consequences if those individuals are precluded from attending institutions of higher education and gaining the credentials that might afford them more employment opportunities. The research of sociologists like Devah Pager at Harvard University has demonstrated that there is a stigma attached to incarceration such that the "mark" of a criminal record limits employment opportunities, particularly as experienced by African American job applicants.
To solve the problem of mass incarceration, returning prisoners should be permitted the opportunity to pursue higher education. A college education can be instrumental in overcoming the stigma of incarceration. In my own research at reentry organizations, I have met formerly incarcerated men and women who have been able to surmount some of the stigma they experience and gain new opportunities for employment through the social and cultural capital they have gained from higher education. And, in an increasingly credentialist society, where a college degree is now the equivalent of what a high school diploma was years ago, it is imperative that the government remove the barriers that would impede formerly incarcerated individuals from signaling their job readiness through a college degree.
To be sure, campus safety is a concern. However, not all individuals with a criminal background are dangerous. Many individuals are convicted of non-violent crimes and, at the very least, those individuals should be allowed to attempt to better themselves through education without the potential chilling effect of a conviction question on the application. Schools may still ensure the safety of their campus by tailoring their inquiry to sex and violent offenders. But the length of time that has passed since a criminal conviction should also be considered.
As the law currently stands, colleges have carte blanche to discriminate against formerly incarcerated applicants without any formal review or appeal process.
The research of Gerald Gaes has shown that education offers a path to increased employment, reduced recidivism, and an improved quality of life as it serves as a formal indicator of an individual's skills and achievement potential. With about one in three American adults estimated to have some sort of criminal record, it serves all of society to ban the blanket use of the criminal background question in college applications. Formerly incarcerated individuals should have the right to earn a second chance through higher education.
President Obama has already taken the right step by executing a federal order to ban the box for federal job applications. But we need to take one step further to ensure that former prisoners can have the chance to become competitive for jobs through the right education.
Ifeoma Ajunwa is an assistant professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia and a doctoral candidate in the sociology department of Columbia University. Her dissertation research focuses on reentry organizations. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.