New Jersey lawmakers heard some depressing testimony in hearings leading up to the legislation. Deterred by barriers to jobs, housing and education, about two-thirds of the people released from prison in New Jersey end up back inside within three years. Since taxpayers spend about $48,000 per prison inmate per year, by some estimates, the state could reap significant savings from even a small decline in the return-to-prison rate.The proposed reforms in New Jersey seek to end practices under which former prisoners are denied employment because of minor convictions, even in the distant past, and crimes that have nothing at all to do with the work being sought.No reasonable person would suggest that a sex offender be given a job in an elementary school or day-care center. An ex-offender could not be disqualified for employment unless the offense was directly related to the job. Job seekers would no longer be required to disclose convictions on applications for state, county or municipal jobs. The offenses could still be uncovered in background checks, but they would no longer automatically rule out an applicant from the start.The bill would lift the state ban on food stamps and welfare benefits for people with felony drug convictions and would expand education and training opportunities for inmates. And it would end an odious practice under which the prison system earns a profit by overcharging poor families for the collect calls they receive from relatives inside a system. The added cost sometimes forces families to choose between putting food on the table or letting a child speak to an incarcerated parent.The New Jersey Legislature has a chance to provide a new lease on life to thousands of families while offering a model for the rest of the nation.
Monday, December 28, 2009
Comprehensive anti-recidivism legislation out of New Jersey
A New York Times editorial published on Christmas Eve titled "Smart Answers to Recidivism" highlights pending reentry legislation out of New Jersey that the Grey Lady suggests should be a national model:
All of these are smart suggestions. The idea of not requiring disclosure of criminal history on job applications has become colloquially known as "banning the box" (i.e., the "box" you must check if previously convicted of a crime), a tactic Travis County introduced last year with no known ill-effects. Employers still perform background checks before hiring, but don't screen out ex-offenders automatically on the front end.
Eliminating state bans on food stamps and welfare benefits could prevent placing ex-offenders in the position of having no options besides illegal activity to put food on the table or a roof over their heads. After the Clinton-era welfare reforms, that still doesn't mean they'll be supported by the state ad infinitum. But especially during a recession when jobs are scarce, the move mitigates to some extent economic motivations for crime. Coupled with expanded education and training opportunities that steer ex-offenders into the workforce, the suggestion makes a lot of sense.
And eliminating price gouging on jail and prison phone calls makes the most sense of all. There's not even a "punishment" justification for that, since the only people it harms are the offenders' families, who should be viewed as allies to prevent recidivism but instead are treated as cash cows mulcted by the state six ways from Sunday.
Texas only recently installed phones in prisons and expanded prisoners' access, but part of the justification for allowing it was the ability to profiteer off inmates' families. Lowering rates to market levels would increase communication with families and make it more likely offenders will be successfully reintegrated when they return home.
That sounds like a pretty comprehensive piece of state legislation. Any one piece of it would be a significant victory; collectively it's a particularly impressive effort that I hope succeeds and is replicated elsewhere.