President Obama and his administration have recently highlighted the necessity of criminal justice reform, emphasizing the need for better re-entry programs. Noting that there are hundreds of thousands of people released from prisons every year, Obama stated, “We need to ensure that they are prepared to re-enter society and become productive, contributing members of their families and communities – and maybe even role models.”
California should take note.
Despite being called the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, CDCR doesn’t have a great track record for rehabilitating inmates. Indeed, over half of all inmates released from a California prison in 2010 returned to prison within three years. It’s clear California has a lot of work to ensure former prisoners successfully re-enter society and do not return to prison.
Oftentimes, individuals newly released from prison in California are given nothing more than $200 and a bus ticket. There’s no help with obtaining housing, employment, continued rehabilitation: nothing. It’s no wonder, then, why so many fail.
Rehabilitation and reintegration don’t just end when an inmate is released. Data show that individuals who have access behind bars to educational and job-training opportunities are much less likely to reoffend, as long as they can put those skills to use upon release.
According to the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, formerly incarcerated individuals who have jobs are half as likely to commit a crime compared with those who are unemployed. Of course, it’s difficult for anyone, especially those who have served prison time, to get a job without access to stable housing, transportation or other marketable skills. So California legislators should remove roadblocks in place that make one’s release from prison a difficult hill to climb.
The American Bar Association’s National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction found there are more than 1,800 laws and regulations in California that place restrictions on people who have re-entered society after being convicted of crimes.
“When convicted persons are limited in their ability to support themselves and to participate in the political process, this has both economic and public safety implications,” the ABA writes. “When society is discouraged from recognizing and rewarding genuine rehabilitation, this has moral and social implications as well.”
Obama recently signed an executive order to “ban the box” on federal job applications. What this means, essentially, is that federal agencies are prohibited from asking about a person’s criminal history on job applications. California was ahead of the curve on this issue, with Gov. Jerry Brown signing similar legislation for state employers over two years ago.
Now the state should also limit liability for employers who hire ex-offenders. This way, employers could no longer be sued for “negligent” hiring simply because an employee has a felony record. Reducing the amount of risk employers face in this sphere would incentivize hiring of individuals with criminal records.
While all of the kinks of these suggested reforms would have to be worked out – such as who would take the lead on the re-entry front and whether there’s an opportunity to incentivize nonprofits and the private sector to take leading roles – the fundamental issue of successful re-entry is one the state must pursue.
Overall, the basic issue is improving opportunities for individuals recently released, while improving public safety for all Californians. Nearly every person in prison will eventually be released. By placing so many barriers in the way of former inmates upon release, the state makes its citizens less safe. It’s time for California to tear down some of these obstacles and make the state a better place to live for those deserving of a second chance.
Lauren Krisai is director of criminal justice reform at Reason Foundation.