Crime-Fighting Tool: Open More Jobs For Ex-Felons

By Neal R. Peirce

October 22, 2006

America's most effective crime-fighting tool may not be more police. Or efficient DNA labs. Or tougher laws. The big breakthrough, instead, might be in making one-timers of potential repeat offenders.

Think about it, and the idea's a slam-dunk. More than 95 percent of the 2-million-plus people we now hold behind bars will eventually be freed. Indeed, 650,000 a year, many convicted under the "get tough" laws of the 1970s to 1990s, are now returning to U.S. towns and cities. And recidivism is high. Across the United States, roughly 60 percent of released prisoners commit another crime, and more than 50 percent return to prison within three years.

Breaking that pattern is a challenge. Most released prisoners have meager educations. Majorities are likely to have been on drugs while in prison. They walk back on the street with practically no money, no driver's license, oftentimes an alienated, angry family. Many have mental problems. And a job? Imagine telling an employer you're a just-released felon.

Even worse, the power of law may be a felon's biggest job barrier. In Illinois, state laws historically provided long lists of jobs that ex-felons couldn't hold from speech specialist to horsemeat dealer, roofer to athletic trainer, embalmer to acupuncturist. The law even forbade ex-felons from working as barbers although some state prisons teach barbering so that prisoners can cut each other's hair.

Surveying the Chicago area, where tens of thousands of ex-prisoners return yearly, the business-led civic action group Chicago Metropolis 2020 decided the issue of prisoner re-entry had to be taken public in a big way. Criminal justice issues usually aren't on the agendas of either regional leadership or business groups, but Metropolis senior executive Paula Wolff had a convincing case.

First, she argued, an economically viable region has to be safe no one wants to live or build a business where crime dangers are high. Second, a region can't be strong for economic development if a big chunk of potential workers is excluded from the labor pool. And third, the convict-imprison-reimprison treadmill is a bad use of scarce tax dollars. One of every $20 of Illinois' general revenue fund, she noted, goes for corrections. Add together the imprisoned and the paroled and those on probation and the total is 245,000 persons enough to be Illinois' second largest city.

In an early step, Barack Obama, then a state representative, introduced successful legislation to let ex-prisoners who were guilty of just one felony get a certificate of rehabilitation and gain easier access to occupational licensing. For the first time in decades, the "lock-'em-up"-prone Legislature embraced the word "rehabilitation." Now some 27 previously forbidden occupations are open to ex-felons and the law's been shifted around to put the burden of proof on state agencies to show why a felon's license application shouldn't be granted.

Mayor Richard Daley, with Metropolis and the business community urging him on, created a caucus on prisoner re-entry. The group resembled a town hall of Chicagoans department heads, police, jail and probation officers, health experts, leaders from business and nonprofits, and even some formerly incarcerated persons and their families. The imperative of a new approach to ex-prisoners became clear learning, for example, that 50 percent of those returning went to six distressed communities, all predominantly African-American, settings already plagued by crime and poverty.

The group also learned how many tough barriers ex-prisoners often face substance abuse, lack of housing, depression and the fact they may never have held a job in their lives.

A broad range of ideas for helping released prisoners emerged, from drug and mental health treatment to family support groups. Daley endorsed those ideas last winter and the city also opened itself to hiring released prisoners except where there's clear reason not to (a convicted sex offender as a school bus driver, for example). Now there's a parallel statewide program to assist returnees, led by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

But increasingly, experts believe early assistance for prisoners quickly after their release can be critical. Now the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation has announced a multimillion-dollar, large-scale test at sites in Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Groups of freshly released inmates will be given subsidized, wage-paying jobs for periods of up to three months, combined with an array of support services and help at finding regular employment.

If the test site results prove dramatically more successful in curbing parole violations and rearrest than regular state and local employment services, there will be a powerful argument for state and local governments to change their ways and focus major funds into recycling inmates back into employment and normal lives.

And that's where the big payoff could come, not only for hundreds of thousands of released prisoners annually, but for public treasuries and all of us, as the vicious cycle crime, imprisonment, release and new crime and incarceration moves from norm to rare exception.

Peirce is a syndicated columnist who specializes in city and state affairs. (nrp@citistates.com)