About one in 10 adult U.S. citizens has a felony conviction.
That sobering statistic is the most convincing argument for applauding President Barack Obama's decision, announced Monday, to "ban the box" in federal hiring.
That means applicants will not be asked in the initial stages of the hiring process if they have a felony conviction.
The term comes from the box, often at the bottom of an application form, asking if the individual has ever been convicted of a felony. Checking that box often means a one-way trip to the rejected pile.
The movement to ban the box — 19 states, the District of Columbia and over 100 cities and counties have adopted some version of it — is part of a larger movement to give the 10 percent of adults with felony records a decent shot at putting their lives back on track.
In fact, Obama's announcement came in the context of a speech at Rutgers University in New Jersey in which he highlighted programs to help former inmates develop job and other skills to facilitate reentry into society. "The goal is to prevent crime," Obama said.
Although states and the federal government have worked hard to reform our criminal justice system, we remain a country that imprisons far too many people, about 600,000 of whom return to society each year.
If they emerge from state or federal prison with no legitimate way to make a living, and little hope of finding one, our society is perpetuating a cycle of poverty and crime.
On the other hand, as Obama said, if they have the tools to become self-sufficient, "then crime will go down and it will stay down."
But ignoring this problem, giving up on one in 10 adults, is a blueprint for crippling our economy and social fabric. Even more damaging, the rate of felony convictions is much higher in minority communities.
Almost a third of adult blacks has a felony conviction. This arises from a complex stew of historical and modern factors, including a justice system that favors the well-heeled and connected.
In Kentucky the prison population exploded from less than 4,000 in 1980 to more than 20,000 in recent years, and the share of the state budget rose from less than $30 million a year to over half a billion.
In an effort to reverse this trend, Kentucky has undertaken reforms in the criminal code and innovations like drug courts. In the upcoming session, legislators should consider joining the other states that have banned the box as part of reform.
In this election season of high-blown rhetoric about our founding principles of equality and opportunity, we should thank Obama for taking this important step pushing those admirable aspirations toward reality.