The plan contains a lot of things you’d expect from Democrats, such as summer-jobs programs and a crackdown on “rogue firearms dealers.” It also highlights that some of the $350 billion allocated to states and localities in the president’s American Rescue Plan can be used to invest in more police officers on the street or equipment and technology for law enforcement.
But one of the most telling items is minor: a note that the Biden administration will put forth regulations on a policy known as “ban the box,” which forbids employers — in this case, many federal agencies and contractors — from asking about an applicant’s criminal history on job applications.
A few things about this are notable. First, this isn’t actually a Biden initiative; the Office of Personnel Management is promulgating regulations to implement the Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act, which passed in 2019. The administration appears to be hoping to take a bit of credit for something the agency was legally required to do.
Second, it’s not clear that anyone should brag about “ban the box,” because while it certainly tries to address a real problem — an estimated 1 in 4 former felons is unemployed, a statistic that presumably worsened during the pandemic — two different studies have reached the same conclusion: that “ban the box” reduced employment opportunities for Black or Hispanic young men, as employers who were denied the ability to screen out criminal histories instead apparently resorted to cruder racial stereotypes.
One can argue, as many supporters of “ban the box” have, that the problem lies less with the law than with the racism of employers. But unless the government can scrub employers’ brains of negative racial stereotypes — or audit the racial balance of the millions upon millions of hiring searches that take place every year — criminal justice policy will have to work around this constraint.
That said, “ban the box” may be more promising for government employment, because the government that enacted the ban is unlikely to resort to racial discrimination to get around it. But it is also, at best, a limited response to rising crime since the federal government hires only about 100,000 people a year, many for skilled positions for which most felons aren’t qualified. And the evidence on expanding “ban the box” to government contractors is more mixed.
Of course, this is one minor provision of a larger plan — but it’s also representative of the potential of much of the rest of that plan. Each of the plan’s individual items sounds good. Almost nothing in it requires congressional cooperation. But ultimately, if any of it helps, it will likely be at the margin.
When some social phenomenon spikes as fast and sharply as the murder rate did across U.S. cities in 2020, you generally want to look at whatever variables changed along with it. Two plausible culprits for the carnage of the past year are the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic and the controversies over policing that followed the death of George Floyd — or some combination of the two. Federal crime policy can do little to address either problem.
Sure, steering recovery funds to summer jobs or community anti-violence interventions might help a bit. But if the problem was the pandemic, the effect of either step would be minor compared to just not locking everything down.
If the problem was policing, then it will certainly take bold government action to improve policing and community relations — but mostly at the local level, because, if policing is the problem, it’s not because all the cities suddenly ran out of money to pay their police forces or because all the gun dealers simultaneously went rogue. Rather, the rupture between cops and communities made policing less effective from some combination of less active policing and less cooperation from a suspicious community.
None of those things are President Biden’s fault. By the same token, the problems aren’t also really his to fix; they’re a job for mayors, police commissioners and community leaders, who will have to find some way to heal the stresses of the pandemic and the shock of Floyd’s murder.
But Biden is president, and we expect the president to heal whatever ails us, even if he doesn’t have any good way to do so. Especially since this president leads the party that runs most of the cities where the crime wave is rising. And so his best bet is to propose things that sound good and hope to take some credit when the cities figure things out themselves, or when a pandemic-driven crime wave recedes on its own.