In 2008, I published an article, “Prisoner Reintegration Challenges of Assimilation and Crime Desistance,” that focused on the challenges ex-prisoners face after release. Unfortunately, what I stated in 2008 still holds true today. Confronted with uncertainty, animosity, and a multitude of personal, social, and legal barriers, most prisoners reenter society with the lifelong stigma of being an ex-prisoner and cannot fully assimilate into society.
The process of “going straight,” which criminologists refer to as desistance from crime, is multifaceted, yet attainable. While it’s possible, it is often very difficult for ex-prisoners to obtain and maintain employment. More needs to be done to help ex-offenders find work especially since gainful employment is critical for successful reintegration, reducing recidivism rates, and cultivating public safety.
Why It’s Important to Help Offenders Find Employment
The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that nearly 95 percent of all state prisoners will be released back into the community at some point, whether it is tomorrow or 40 years from today. This suggests that only a mere 5 percent of all state prisoners are serving death sentences or life without the possibility of parole, and an even smaller percentage will die in prison while serving out their respective sentences.
However, ex-offenders are likely to have a very difficult time finding employment. A 2010 Center for Economic and Policy Research report noted that a prison record greatly reduces an ex-prisoner’s prospect of garnering employment. Even at the relatively low productivity rates of ex-prisoners (they typically have less formal education than the average worker), the resulting loss of economic output in the United States is estimated to be between $57 and $65 billion.
The upsurge in the ex-prisoner population, along with employment and economic output losses, overwhelmingly reflects changes that have taken place in the U.S. criminal justice system over the years, not changes in underlying criminal activity. The dramatic increases in sentencing time, especially for drug-related offenses, partly accounts for the spike in the ex-prisoner population. Therefore, changes in both employment and sentencing laws can have a positive impact on the U.S. economy while simultaneously reducing overall recidivism rates and improving public safety. These changes are of significant importance for African Americans. The NAACP reports that African Americans comprise 14 percent of the U.S. population, but disproportionately represent 40 percent of the nation’s prison population.
Legislation Initiatives to Aid Ex-Offenders
One promising legislative initiative that is gaining in popularity is referred to as the “Clean Slate” bill. The intent of the legislation is to seal the criminal records of low-level, non-violent, ex-offenders who go 10 consecutive years without another criminal conviction. The legislation will also seal the records of arrests that did not result in convictions.
The Clean Slate bill has received widespread bipartisan support. In early June 2018, it passed the Pennsylvania Senate unanimously after receiving House approval with only two “no” votes. On June 28, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed it into law. In addition to increasing employment prospects, the law will also improve and increase housing and educational opportunities for ex-offenders.
The Clean Slate bill has received widespread bipartisan support and in early June 2018, passed the Pennsylvania Senate unanimously after receiving House approval with only two “no” votes. If signed into law, which is anticipated, the act would also seal the records of arrests that did not result in convictions. In addition to increasing employment prospects, the law would also improve and increase housing and educational opportunities for ex-offenders.
Another initiative gaining momentum with the blessing of bipartisan support is known as “ban the box” or “fair chance policy.” This particular initiative affords applicants a fair chance at employment by removing the conviction history question from job applications and delaying background checks until later in the hiring process.
A 2018 National Employment Law Project publication reported that, as of June 2018, 31 states, the District of Columbia, and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted “ban the box” policies in which employers consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, without the stigma of a conviction or an arrest record.
The report also noted that delaying records-related inquiries until after a conditional offer of employment ensures a fairer decision-making process. It requires employers to consider the job-relatedness of a conviction, time passed, and mitigating circumstances or rehabilitation evidence. Granted, in some cases, it might just simply delay the inevitable in the form of a rejection letter, but remember that this policy is primarily intended to assist low-level, non-violent ex-offenders (namely drug offenders) in obtaining employment, a key protective factor in combating recidivism.
Other promising initiatives include the Federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit Program, which allows a company to claim a tax credit of up to $2,400 for hiring an employee with a felony conviction within one year of the date of his or her conviction or release from incarceration. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor offers a free bonding program for “at-risk” job applicants, including people with criminal records, indemnifying employees for loss of money or property due to an employee’s dishonesty or theft.
Such laws are beneficial for ex-offenders and the community. Not only do they help ex-offenders obtain gainful employment to help them successfully reintegrate into society, these measures also provide ex-offenders with a renewed sense of purpose and identity that many lack after their release. By keeping them out of the correctional system, these laws also help minimize costly recidivism rates and contribute to enhanced public safety.
About the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration; has served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 16 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a BS in Criminal Justice; an MPA in Public Administration; and a PhD in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.