Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
September 6, 2013
As lawmakers across the country struggle to get a handle on soaring criminal justice costs, we learn of plans to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, the diversion of “low-level” drug offenders from prison and a host of other ideas that keep offenders from being held accountable for their criminal conduct.
There is another way to lower prison costs while reducing victimization and generating tax revenue: Remove barriers to employment for previously incarcerated offenders.
An offender facing reintegration into the community must deal with many obstacles. Finding employment may be the most difficult obstacle and yet may be the most important component of success. Offenders returning home from prison often identify employment as the most important factor that helped them stay crime-free, according to the National Reentry Resource Center.
The unemployment rate of formerly incarcerated offenders one year after release may be as high as 60 percent, according to Joan Petersilia in When Prisoners Come Home, and there is an increasing reluctance among employers to hire people with criminal histories.
Furthermore, studies show that inmates re-entering communities are most vulnerable to failure in the early stages after release from jail or prison. Offenders who do not reintegrate successfully into society often do it early; within three years of release, four out of 10 prisoners will have committed new crimes or violated the terms of their release and will be reincarcerated, according to the Pew Center on the States.
Formerly incarcerated men earn approximately 40 percent less per year than those who have never been incarcerated. Unfortunately, many offenders are ill-equipped to break the cycle of reincarceration. They lack the education and workforce skills needed to succeed in the labor market and the problem-solving skills needed to address the challenges of re-entry, according to Doris Layton MacKenzie in What Works in Corrections.
MacKenzie recently wrote that a growing body of evidence shows that providing offenders with education and training increases their employment opportunities, addresses their cognitive deficits and helps reduce their likelihood of recidivating.
A recent study by the RAND Corporation found that inmates who participated in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prison than those who did not. Prisoners who participated in academic or vocational education programs increased their chances of employment by 13 percent.
There are certainly relevant concerns for employers that are seeking to fill vacancies in their workforces.
How does an employer know when it's all right to disregard a criminal record? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are looking for the answer. Professors Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura believe their research provides criminal justice practitioners with a scientific method for estimating how long is long enough for someone with a prior record to remain arrest-free before being considered "redeemed" by a prospective employer.
Their research found, in part, that an 18-year-old convicted of robbery is no more likely to commit another crime than the rest of the population once 7.7 years have passed crime-free since the offense.The research is promising for former offenders who have remained crime-free, but it takes legislative action to remove the barriers to employment. Those most burdened by criminal records are those with felony convictions.
At least 26 states allow some felonies to be expunged. Even some traditional "law and order" states like Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina recognize that old, minor offenses can plague job-seekers for years and took positive steps to allow the expungement of a number of low-level offenses.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a former prosecutor, said, “Most of those convicted of crimes will return to our communities, and we should be doing everything we can to give them the skills and opportunities they need to reintegrate successfully, rather than returning to a life of crime. That is the right thing to do, and it makes us all safer."
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.