Tanya Elena Balsky
Kid, Have You Rehabilitated Yourself?
DMI Fellow Ezekiel Edwards posted on the DMIBlog earlier today about how the disenfranchisement of former convicts discourages them from becoming "law-abiding stakeholders in the community." Similarly, the lack of job opportunities for those re-entering society contributes heavily to the recidivism rate, which is now over 50% for all offenses (for some truly terrifying, though old, data, check out these study results at the Department of Justice.)
Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who has served as San Francisco's Sheriff for 25 years, knows the problem well. He has won widespread recognition for dramatically reducing criminal recidivism rates for violent male offenders through his innovative in-custody treatment program, Resolve to Stop the Violence. When Sheriff Hennessey addressed the Drum Major Institute's Marketplace of Ideas last year, he argued that "prisons should serve four goals: punishment, isolation, deterrence, and rehabilitation. In reality, most do a pretty good job at the first two, and fail miserably at deterrence and rehabilitation. In fact, many systems have abandoned the goal of rehabilitation altogether. This is a woefully myopic view of our criminal justice system. After all, even the most average of prison rehabilitation programs has a better track record than the typical prison or jail."
The good news is that government beyond Hennessey's purview is starting to take notice. Two articles in the New York Times today highlighted government progress in helping former convicts in finding jobs The first, "Booker Has 100-Day Plan for Newark's Reorganization" by Ronald Smothers points out that Newark's new mayor, Cory A. Booker, included his 100 day plan a plan to assist former convicts in getting jobs, creating the post of prisoner re-entry coordinator in his administration to "make sure former convicts benefit from jobs created by economic development and to work to eliminate background checks for city jobs where such checks are not necessary." He said that this concern had come up "frequently" in conversations with voters. One caveat: he was unable to put a price tag on this proposal or describe how the city would pay for this initiative.
The second article, an editorial entitled "Ex-Prisoners and Port Security" discusses a recommendation by an advisory group created by the Council of State Governments that "states and the federal government strike down laws barring ex-offenders from occupations that have nothing to do with their crimes or even with public safety." The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for anti-discrimination employment laws, says that employers "must not exclude people based upon arrests that did not lead to conviction unless there is a 'business justification' and must not exclude people because of criminal convictions unless there is if there is a 'business necessity.'" People with arrest and conviction records whose civil rights are violated can sue under Title VII; however, an appeals process could possibly trap law-abiding citizens indefinitely. While the rules are a good start, they have been criticized as overly broad by legislators across the board, and revision is necessary.
Politicians need to focus on what works. We learned at our Marketplace of Ideas event from Martin Horn, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction that we can, and in fact we have an "obligation to address the economic foundation of crime, the reasons for it, in addition to the psychological factors by providing jobs that help people sustain themselves." Michael Hennessey taught us that focusing on deterrence and rehabilitation is effective in reducing the recidivism rate, and has worked hands on to form programs that have achieved just that- both the RSVP program and a newer ex-offender reentry program that includes a resource center and a continuation high school for ex-offenders; Mayor Booker should have a chat with him before setting policy for Newark.