“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
One of the sad ironies in 21st century America is that there are so many who have to work, and want to work, but who are effectively prevented from working at all, never mind finding a job they can enjoy doing. At the end of October, we celebrated National Disability Employment Awareness Month with an article on the importance and impact of supported employment programs for people with mental health disorders and other disabilities.
The effects of gainful employment on lifetime success and quality of life include greater personal agency, increased hopefulness, and a more positive outlook on life. This is true for all of us, but especially for people struggling with their mental health or those returning from incarceration, who are often not given a decent chance. Entrenched discrimination, legal and regulatory barriers, and a lack of training opportunities in many jails and prisons effectively bar Americans with a history of justice-involvement from working a day in their lives once they have been released. Imagine you have been held in captivity to repay society for your wrongs, unable to meaningfully contribute to your community. Imagine having a strong desire to work and being told that employment is the linchpin for your success after incarceration only to discover, once you’ve paid your debt to society and regained your freedom, that the world will regard you with hostility and suspicion for the rest of your life. That is the experience of a growing contingent of the millions of Americans who churn through prisons and jails across the country.
Thirty percent of American adults today have a criminal record. Barriers to higher education, having to check a box on a job application to indicate felony records, employer discrimination, the double binds of parole and probation technical violations, on top of a host of other “collateral consequences,” have produced a startling statistic. Sixty percent of those who return from incarceration will be unemployed one year after release, even though employment is a strong predictor of successful reentry after incarceration. Barriers to employment contribute to the 50% likelihood of returning to incarceration again.
Organizations like Equitas, which advocate for an end to mass incarceration, ask: “what is incarceration for?” Incarceration, some might think, should serve as both a bringer of justice and as a part of a framework within our social contract in which wrongdoing is repaid through correction and rehabilitation. We also supposedly use incarceration as a tool to help us improve the safety of our communities. However, study after study demonstrate the maddening reality that jails and prisons in the United States do not prevent crime but may actually contribute to the perpetuation and fostering of criminal behaviors. In fact, the longer someone is incarcerated, the more likely to they are to come back.
We already know what truly reduces crime rates. President Ronald Reagan said, “the best social program is a job.” When we allow people to take care of themselves, build meaning in their lives, and thrive, they naturally have more to lose and are less likely to commit crimes. Meanwhile, when we institutionalize someone and effectively make them dependent not just on the jail and prison system, but on the social safety net outside of the justice system, we add nails to the coffin of real liberty in America. We burden ourselves as taxpayers with the long-term and overly expensive care of perfectly employable citizens as they return again and again to the justice system.
Not only must we “ban the box,” to prevent employers from discriminating against workers with a criminal record, we must actively seek the employment of those who have criminal records. Take it from the many organizations that currently focus on supporting the employment of returning citizens: most formerly incarcerated individuals are more dedicated and hard-working than the average employee, and when given the right supports, are less likely to become involved with our systems of justice again. We must question and reject our assumptions about those with a criminal record, and instead put faith in the power of atonement and our own capacity for forgiveness.
In “the land of the free,” we can and should do better to close the gap between who we say we are and what we do when we imprison our fellow citizens and then bar them from gaining employment after their release. The policies and practices preventing our returning neighbors from landing a job hurt communities, children, and families; endanger liberty; and ultimately reduce prosperity in America. Let us reverse these shameful and misguided practices.