Sunday, July 8, 2012

Non-violent offenders get a second chance in Ohio

The Youngstown Vindicator
July 8, 2012

Some formerly incarcerated offenders in Ohio have had a difficult, if not impossible, time finding a job. Felonies, and even some misdemeanors, eliminate offenders from consideration for various types of employment.

A new law in Ohio is seeking to make the employment process easier for non-violent offenders released from prison. The intent of the legislation is to break down employment barriers that commonly get in the way of ex-offenders trying to adjust to life on the street. Overcoming job-related obstacles, commonly referred to as collateral sanctions, is a key to successful reintegration.

The legislation was signed into law last week. “Who here doesn’t need to be redeemed? We are giving people a second chance,” Gov. John Kasich told the Legislature during a recent address.

Barriers to re-entry

When ex-offenders are released from prison their convictions make it extremely difficult to support themselves because of government-imposed barriers to successful re-entry. Ohio has 46 statutes that impose driver license suspensions. Each of those can contribute to the difficulty offenders have in finding or keeping a job. Criminal records are easily available to potential employers, landlords and other members of the community. As a result, ex-offenders are frequently denied access to employment, housing and other community resources.

Federal and state statutes prohibit certain types of employment for those convicted of a litany of offenses. Ex-offenders are statutorily prohibited from obtaining licenses for a number of occupations, according to the Urban Institute Reentry Roundtable.

Jobs requiring contact with children, some health care occupations and security firms are out-of-reach of ex-offenders. Many employers are simply reluctant to hire ex-offenders to positions that require handling money, merchandise, or where there is limited ability to monitor employee performance.

There are inherent obstacles for ex-offenders. Nearly 70 percent of all offenders are high school dropouts. In Every Door Closed: Barriers Facing Parents with Criminal Records, researchers found that about half of all offenders are “functionally illiterate.” Many offenders had limited, if any, employment history prior to incarceration and an absence of job skills.

A Texas study found that parolees who obtain employment spend more time crime-free in the community than unemployed parolees. The study further indicated that crime-free periods are indicative of positive behavioral changes that should be supplemented with clinical interventions to help offenders maintain the initial motivation associated with employment.

The new law addresses many of the collateral sanctions that have dogged former inmates for years. However, the law does not address how Ohio will prepare newly released inmates for employment opportunities not previously available to them, or provide much needed interventions to assist with job retention. Having the ability to obtain an occupational license does not mean a former inmate has the training or skills to get one.

The law also addresses the ways and reasons for which a driver can lose and then regain driving privileges. The state had more than 2.6 million suspensions among 7.3 million licensed drivers, according to the Dayton Daily News.

Job discrimination

There are already some federal prohibitions against job discrimination regarding ex-felons. In the fall of 2009, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that screening out job applicants with a criminal record that would not affect their job performance is illegal because it has the effect of excluding minorities and males. Those groups have disproportionately higher conviction rates than the general population.

Ohio’s efforts to reduce obstacles that impede successful prisoner reentry are admirable. However, eliminating some collateral sanctions is only one component of a successful reentry program.

Investing in the Department Rehabilitations and Corrections’ — and community corrections’ — efforts at education, vocational training and life skills are essential to success. Lifting barriers to employment will not magically make unskilled, uneducated ex-offenders employable.

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