Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Koch Industries, Facebook to Help Obama Find Jobs for Ex-Cons

  • Nineteen large companies sign on to criminal justice overhaul
  • Obama has encouraged employers to "ban the box" in hiring

Companies including Facebook Inc., Koch Industries Inc. and Alphabet Inc. said Monday they would help the Obama administration knock down barriers to employment for ex-convicts, part of President Barack Obama’s attempt to overhaul the U.S. criminal justice system.

Executives from 19 major corporations came to the White House on Monday after agreeing to sign a pledge to take measures including "banning the box" on job applications -- the practice of asking applicants whether they have criminal records. Obama has directed the federal government to end the practice in its own hiring and delay questioning applicants about their criminal histories.

The White House hopes that by recruiting a diverse set of marquee companies to the cause, the administration can persuade other businesses to overhaul their hiring practices and give more convicts a second chance. Around 70 million Americans have a criminal record, including almost one in three of working age, according to the administration. Obama is pushing Congress to write bipartisan legislation that would ease sentencing for nonviolent offenders, among other criminal justice changes.

Mark Holden, general counsel at Koch Industries, said it is "shortsighted" for employers to potentially screen out one in three working adults who have a criminal record.

"That just doesn’t make sense," Holden said in a phone interview. "Hiring people who had issues with the criminal justice system, we got some great employees, dedicated and hungry."

Support from major companies is "helpful to our overall effort," Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama adviser, said by phone. "Many of these companies have been important partners in our push for criminal justice reform."

Koch’s Support

The criminal justice legislation is backed by an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats who view severe sentences as a human rights issue and conservatives and libertarians who see government spending on incarceration as excessive and counterproductive. Billionaire Republican donors Charles and David Koch backed the effort even before their company signed the White House pledge.

Jarrett said the White House remained "encouraged" that legislation could be completed in the coming year, and that there has recently been "a lot of activity among members in both the House and the Senate" to finish the bill. She recently discussed the bill with two key supporters, Senators Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, and Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, she said.

The administration has also worked unilaterally to address sentencing disparities. Late last month, Obama announced he was granting clemency to 61 individuals, bringing to 248 the number of people whose sentences he has commuted. That is more than the previous six presidents combined. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, meanwhile, announced a new policy earlier this month prohibiting landlords from using automatic criminal record reviews to discriminate against minority renters.

Corporate Strategy

The strategy of combining regulatory action with corporate pledges mirrors the White House’s approach to other policies including climate change. The administration has recruited dozens of corporations to pledge billions of dollars to reduce carbon emissions.

It’s also an example of the White House working with big business at a time when the administration has drawn ire from Wall Street for regulations seen as onerous to companies. Last week, the administration announced a Labor Department rule requiring financial advisers to act in their clients’ best interests and new Treasury Department regulations intended to crack down on companies that attempt to avoid U.S. taxes by merging with foreign partners, called inversions.

Jarrett said Obama has stressed to corporate leaders that it is in their best interest to give ex-convicts a shot at rebuilding their professional lives.

"In his discussions, the president has impressed upon them about how it is important for the health of the economy that those who earned a second chance get a second chance," Jarrett said.

‘Best Talent’

Matt Miller, a spokesman for American Airlines Group Inc., one of the companies signing the White House’s pledge, said the airline believes that by delaying questions about criminal history it can avoid screening out otherwise excellent job candidates.

"That means recruiting, developing, engaging the best people possible with unique backgrounds, and being fair and open-minded," he said in a phone interview.

Scot Hoffman, a spokesman for Prudential Financial Inc., said in a statement that inclusive hiring practices were part of "recruiting and retaining the best talent."

Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Jarrett are expected to attend the meeting with corporate leaders at the White House, and the administration plans to keep its criminal justice overhaul in the spotlight in coming weeks. The Justice Department will offer job fairs, practice interviews and events for the children of incarcerated parents the week of April 24-30, which it has designated as National Re-entry Week. The White House will also hold an event to honor individuals who run rehabilitation and reintegration programs for ex-convicts.

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