We are now two for two. President Obama, a Democrat, addressed the need to help inmates acclimate to society after their release. President Trump, a Republican, spoke in his State of the Union address about the need to help formerly incarcerated people get a second chance. We can take momentary solace in having one issue that even the people we don’t like can agree on – we need a better plan to help inmates become more productive members of society upon their release.
The costs of not doing so are profound and well documented. With the largest prison population in the world and the second highest rate of incarceration, the United States spends $80 billion on public corrections agencies annually. Some 2.2 million people (equal to the combined populations of Hawaii and Alaska) are incarcerated, and more than 90 percent of them will be released at some point. This data does not account for the human suffering of inmates and their victims.
Although there have been many proposals to help inmates, not enough is getting done, and the rate of recidivism continues to be unacceptably high. About two-thirds of released state prisoners are rearrested within three years of re-entering society. Three out of four are rearrested within five years of release, according to the most recent data. Some people of good intention have proposed that we need better drug treatment programs for inmates who suffer from substance abuse. Others have proposed that we need better job training to give inmates more enhanced skills. Finally, there are some who propose that inmates need better skills with simple life tasks, such as reading, writing and managing money.
The data on these efforts is conflicting, but, under any of these approaches, even if properly executed, we are left with the elephant in the room – widespread discrimination against people who have been formerly incarcerated. So, for example, if inmates get trained in certain jobs, they may develop the skills they need, but it may not lead to a higher rate of employment because employers routinely discriminate against those who have been incarcerated. But, in a way, we don’t need a study to tell us what’s obvious — if I drop a hammer on my head, it will probably hurt. Employers take great risks in hiring anyone for their companies. They have the cost to train people. They have the uncertainty of knowing whether people will perform jobs adequately. They have the additional scrutiny of human resources regulations. So, can you really blame employers for not hiring inmates who at the least have a record that objectively increases the risk of hiring them? I don’t think so. I think pointing our fingers at employers is not only wrong; worse, it accomplishes nothing.
So this leaves us with what to do, and I look to the history of America to provide guidance on how all underprivileged classes have been able to work their way up the social strata. That is through entrepreneurship. If you look carefully at the history of the United States, you find that every underprivileged group was able to improve its position through education or entrepreneurship. We know that inmates do not typically have the blessing of a good education, so we have to rule that out. That leaves us with entrepreneurship. If somebody has a business and comes to my front door and asks to cut my lawn, I don’t ask them whether or not they’ve been in prison. I also don’t need to know if they can run a computer or even read. I don’t care — I just want my lawn cut. However, if I run a lawn-cutting service myself, and someone wants to work for my company, I may ask questions about that person’s background. So the answer is to help inmates start low-capital (less than $500) businesses that they can bootstrap to make a livable income and be productive and proud members of society. Various organizations in the country have recognized this deficit and are addressing it. The government can and should also get more involved, starting with the U.S. Small Business Administration. The SBA already has free resources to help other groups specifically (women, minorities, veterans) start and operate businesses. Why not help the millions of former inmates who also need help? And, remember, an ex-offender is more likely to hire an inmate than a person who has not been incarcerated, so the compound interest effect of helping people start businesses is overwhelming.
Until we become realistic about the discrimination that inmates face and the impact that has, I do not believe that significant progress will be made. We are just wasting time talking about things and not doing anything. We can try to lower discrimination against inmates, which is an honorable endeavor, but this has all the positive attributes except the one negative, which is that it is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Or, we can go around the system as it exists (as every disenfranchised group in our country’s history has done) and help these people start businesses.