That's the implication of a new survey conducted by the Urban Institute among felons leaving the Texas prison system who planned to return to Houston, the Houston Chronicle's Peggy O'Hare reported this morning ("Felons' view of freedom often rosier than reality," Nov. 26). Despite relatively high recidivism rates, the survey found that 84% of exiting inmates thought it would be "easy" to stay out of trouble and keep from returning to prison, meaning that many who hope and expect to succeed on the outside later run into barriers that prevent that goal. So what factors would cause so many people who say they want to change their lives to commit new crimes? Reported O'Hare:
That's an incredible amount of optimism and positive, hopeful potential offenders appear to possess when they leave the penitentiary. It's too bad reality doesn't more closely reflect their expectations. If 71% think they'll support themselves, but only 15% have jobs waiting, then about 56% are in for a big disappointment -- so many employers refuse to hire ex-prisoners, they'll be lucky to draw any paycheck at all in the free world, much less one that lets them support themselves and their families (about half of all Texas inmates have minor-age children).
Many find that prospective employers are reluctant to give people with felony records a chance to prove themselves, and finding rental properties that will allow felons to sign a lease can be even tougher. Also, experts say, family members long separated from them by steel bars may not be willing to reconnect.
But one Urban Institute researcher said the inmates' optimism is simply human nature.
"I really do believe they have every hope and every intent of making it this time," said Nancy La Vigne, one of the study's authors. "The disconnect comes after release, when they have no support system."
Researchers found 71 percent of those surveyed expected to support themselves easily, although only 15 percent had jobs waiting for them. Most acknowledged they would need help with education, job training, money, transportation and health care.
The study also found that 79 percent expected it to be easy to renew family relationships. As many as 63 percent expected to live with their families and 54 percent said they would rely on loved ones for financial support.
These stats highlight a disconnect in public policy that I've never understood -- more than 90% of Texas corrections resources are spent on prison buildings, guards, and other incarceration expenses, but without in-prison preparation, plus job placement and housing assistance when they get out, many felons become recidivists purely out of desperation at a lack of other options. That makes us all less safe.
Almost everyone who enters prison eventually comes out, and then what happens? Take the example of a 20-year old burglar who robs houses to get money for drugs. If in prison that person receives no drug treatment, education, or job training, then upon release, because of the "felon" label, cannot get a job or a place to live, what can anyone expect but for the offender to go back to robbing houses? No job, no home, the addiction that drove the original offense still extant -- what other option does that person have, really? We've created a situaton where criminality becomes the only available career path instead of just a youthful bad decision.
Incarceration has boomed to the point that one in eleven Texans is now a felon (after all, Texas has declared nearly 2,000 distinct acts "felonies"). That means there are an awful lot of people out there in precisely that circumstance.
If we really cared about public safety instead of just vengeance and retribution, programs to help offenders find jobs and places to live would be as important a part of the corrections system as prison walls and bars. That's because the goal of the system would be for the offenders not to commit new crimes when they get out -- to reduce the overall amount of crime. When you look at the incentives the current system provides -- bans on many jobs, allowing housing discrimination, re-arrest instead of treatment for drug abuse, restrictions on voting and participation in public life -- you'd honestly think Texas wants ex-offenders to fail and commit more crimes.