We have all heard stories in the news about felons getting released from prison and then within days engaging in a crime spree before being arrested again and sent back to prison. In the wake of their mayhem, lives are destroyed, property is lost or wrecked, and we all pay a price.
It never really made sense to me that men and women who have spent years, if not decades in prison, are suddenly just expected to reenter society and abide by the law without a secure job or housing.
According to Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management, 54 percent of men and women discharged from Connecticut prisons return to prison within three years. It costs Connecticut’s taxpayers $50,000 per prisoner on average annually to keep a prisoner incarcerated. And eighty percent of the prisoners who are released have chronic medical, psychiatric, or substance abuse problems.
Still there are limited programs in place within the system to allow for a prisoner’s safe reentry into the population. Without a job and a place to live, much of the burden for a prisoner’s reentry is placed upon that prisoner’s family. But many of those families have limited resources to help support the released prisoner with adequate food, housing and medical care.
Proper reintegration into society requires that society help manage the burden of ensuring housing and workforce placement. Simply opening the prison door, shaking the prisoner’s hand, and sending him out into the world on his release date is not going to be good for the prisoner or for society.
Last week federal lawmakers came together in a bipartisan way to push for legislation to help ex-prisoners find work upon release. Republican and Democratic lawmakers proposed the so-called Fair Chance Act as they seek to reduce recidivism rates by making it easier for ex-prisoners to find work.
Under the law the federal government and federal contractors would be prohibited from making inquiries about an applicant’s criminal past before a conditional job offer is made. In supporting the legislation, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said that “getting people back to work improves the safety of our communities, strengthens families, and reduces government dependence.”
In 2016, Connecticut became one of 33 states in the union to pass so-called “ban the box” legislations that prohibits employers from making inquiries into an applicant’s criminal history at the beginning of the employment process in most circumstances. That means that employers cannot ask applicants, prior to making a conditional job offer, whether or not the applicant has any criminal convictions, has ever been arrested, or has ever been criminally charged.
Employers in Connecticut cannot make criminal background inquiries until the interview process has begun or a job offer has been made.
The idea behind these laws is to give former prisoners an opportunity to present themselves for a job on their merits so that they are not disqualified out of hand before the interview process even starts. While the laws do not require employers to hire former prisoners, it gives employers an opportunity to learn more about former prisoners before making a decision about whether or not to employ them.
If we are a society that believes in redemption, these types of laws are a step in the right direction.