a bird and a bottle

From the Times: Make Re-Entry Real
March 27, 2007, 9:38 am
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, education, law, news, news & views

Is someone on the NYT editorial board reading this blog? (i wish.)

Only yesterday I complained that the media elites don’t give enough space and energy to talking about prison reform and criminal justice.

And lo and behold, today there’s an editorial in the times praising Washington’s new legislation that provides each incarcerated person a personal re-entry plan, and calling on other states to give the same amount of attention and money to this important issue.

This month, the Washington State Senate passed a farsighted bill that could be a model for the nation. It would require the state Corrections Department to fashion individual re-entry plans — detailing job training, drug treatment and educational goals — for every inmate. The bill, which is expected to pass the House as well, would provide a tax incentive for companies that hire previously incarcerated people, and would prompt a review of state laws that may bar felons from state-licensed occupations that are in no way related to their offenses.

Pretty damn good, eh? While the Washington plan doesn’t solve all the problems — like the fact that a lot of the men and women incarcerated shouldn’t even be there in the first place, but have fallen victim to ridiculous and punitive drug laws that target low level offenders — but it’s a commendable and huge step in the right direction.

The Times rightly notes that there are other important aspects of prisoner re-entry that must be addressed. The most important (by my lights): education programs.

Researchers have shown over and over again that inmates who earn colleges degrees are far less likely to end up back behind bars. But like most states, Washington backed away from prison college education programs during the 1990s. That’s also when Congress barred inmates from receiving federal Pell grants. Washington State’s proposed new program would partly reverse that policy by allowing inmates to take college classes that would be paid for by the inmates, third parties or perhaps through loans. It would also require the state to pay the full costs for inmates seeking high school diplomas or high school equivalency degrees.

While the Times notes that the costs are uncertain (and I bet they are), I’m damn sure that the costs of re-entry programs like Washington’s are a whole lot less than the cost of incarcerating people. Oh, and then RE-incarcerating them when they reoffend in large because they can’t get a job when they are released, have no place to live, and find themselves grasping at straws again. That recidivistic cycle is hugely expensive, both in actual dollars and in the other costs to our communities.


8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

k, mark it on the calendar. i’m actually impressed with a legislative body in the U.S.

Comment by maxwell

I know. Amazing. Fingers crossed that it makes it through and that it’s implemented in the way it was intended…

Comment by bean

i, too, am shocked. i hope spitzer reads this post (or at least the Times editorial) and gets a thinkin’

Comment by professorplum

How useful would it be to pass a law forbidding discrimination based on past incarceration, with a few obvious exceptions such as for sex or property offenders in jobs dealing with children or money respectively?

Comment by Alon Levy

I think a law like that could be helpful. But there are a few caveats to that: First, enforcement would be difficult. Often people with incarceration histories will also not have work histories or wll not meet educational requirements, so there may be other (pretextual) reasons for denying them jobs. Second, juries will likely be unsympathetic. Third, where would we draw the line? Could people convicted of drug crimes not work for pharmacies?

I think there’s the seed of something good there. Let’s develop it more…

Comment by bean

Typically, the jobs ex-cons will take don’t require much education; for the work history part, check DMI’s call for a) making UNICOR pay fair wages and b) allowing people to list it as a reference. Even the problem of juries can possibly be gotten around by first prosecuting cases in which the offense in question was small and then proceeding based on precedent.

But drawing the line is where the devil rears its ugly head, yes. I honestly don’t know about drug offenders and pharmacies; I was thinking mostly about low-level McJobs (or, alternatively, semi-skilled union jobs), but in rural areas where almost the only option is working at a Wal-Mart that incorporate a pharmacy, it will be a serious problem.

Comment by Alon Levy

Of course you and I both agree, Alon, that there should be options other than wal-mart and it’s no health care/bad pay jobs…but alas, I fear that is far in the future.

Comment by bean

Of course… I gave Wal-Mart as an example mainly because it’s an employer that will take anyone without a history of union activism. But manufacturing jobs with good pay and benefits – at least until they’re outsourced – are also options, whenever they’re available.

Comment by Alon Levy

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