These days many governors face a conundrum that is taxing their cost-cutting creativity. State revenues are climbing steadily, but the top line growth is eclipsed by soaring Medicaid outlays, surging retirement obligations, declining state pension fund assets and, in some states, court-mandated increases in public school funding. The pressure is so acute that state officials are now thinking the previously unthinkable — releasing inmates early to trim their prison and jail population.
The war on crime launched two decades ago spawned a wave of tougher sentencing laws. This in turn triggered a steep surge in expenditures on prisons to accommodate the influx of offenders, even including nonviolent drug offenders and recidivists snared for minor crimes by the likes of California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law. As a result, the nation’s prisons are overflowing with nonviolent felons who languish behind bars many years longer than are necessary to see the error of their ways and pay their debt to society. And state expenditures on corrections have climbed by 24 percent alone in the past five years
Excessive incarceration saddles taxpayers and government with housing, feeding and guarding prisoners well beyond the point when there’s any point at all. Once they’ve done their time, many inmates emerge from incarceration bereft of jobs, housing, money and hope. This marks them from the outset as prime candidates for recidivism. Ironically, the pressure to curb corrections expenditures has spurred state and federal officials to embrace prisoner re-entry programs, such as family assistance, housing aid, mental health services, education services and, of course, job training.
These welcome initiatives beg the question, though, of whether ex-offenders actually will be able to land jobs. To be realistic, they rarely leap to the head of the applicant queue in the eyes of employers. When the labor market is very tight, some venturesome employers take a chance on ex-inmates as a last resort. But they’re the laudable exception, seldom the rule.
The travails of ex-offenders trying to find jobs ricochet all over society. They’re in a miserable position upon release to support themselves and fulfill any child support obligations. Unable to secure jobs, they cannot burnish their credentials as trustworthy workers. Idle except for the shadowy underground economy, many eventually revert to criminality because there’s little where else for them to fit.
A soundly conceived transitional jobs program could help steer motivated ex-offenders down a constructive path and better position them to persuade employers that they’re a safe bet. But where on earth, would the money to finance it come from?
The answer may lie right under government’s nose, namely in the massive appropriations for the corrections system. The wages and supervisory costs for a minimum wage public service job total considerably less than the per inmate cost of incarceration. Voila! Releasing carefully screened inmates several years early to participate in a well-run transitional employment program could get them back on track and plow savings back to the government in the bargain.
As with many new ideas, there are many knotty issues to be resolved, preferably by launching this on a pilot basis. For instance, how would inmates qualify? For a year or more prior to their expected release, they might be required to demonstrate exemplary behavior, plus perform admirably in rehabilitation and training programs inside prison.
Who would they work for? I envision the corrections department contracting with other government agencies, like the highway, public works and environmental protection departments, and with reputable nonprofit groups that can provide credible training and supervision.
What kind of work would they do? To minimize static from unions understandably protective of their jobs, the ex-offenders could perform tasks that government clearly cannot afford, as evidenced by the fact that the work goes undone for years on end. Clearing, grooming and maintaining unsightly mass transit rights of way, viaducts and waterfronts are visible examples of unattended public work. The higher profile the assignments, the more taxpayers will value the debt to society being paid by the ex-offenders via their work and see the payoff from early release employment programs.
The jobs might last for up to one year. After all, the aim is to ease their transition to the labor market, not shelter them forever from reality. Supervision, to fine tune work habits and skills, and support, with resume preparation and job search, are indispensable program ingredients.
And what if they regress? Tiny infractions like occasional tardiness ought not to trigger severe punishment. But if workers fail to participate conscientiously or commit crimes, they should be remanded to prison to serve out their terms. Early release with guaranteed employment isn’t an opportunity to be trifled with.
Policymakers must think out of the box in order for ex-offenders to avert the trap of perpetual unemployment. Converting otherwise wasted years behind bars into transitional jobs based on good behavior will transform the debt they’ve paid to society into a dividend for society.