Each week, over 10,000 ex-offenders are released from prison in this country, more than 650,000 each year. Two-thirds of them will likely be arrested again within three years of release. Why is that? Those recidivism numbers are so discouraging, but they are really not all that surprising when you consider the overwhelming challenges most ex-offenders face when trying to turn their lives around.
First, there is the obvious – they have just spent the last stage of their life NOT saving money, furthering their career, networking, improving their relationships, getting an education, etc. Instead, they often have only a few dollars to their name when they are plopped right back into the neighborhood where their troubles began.
And their troubles return almost immediately. It’s unbelievable how hard it can be for ex-offenders to meet their most basic need, housing. After their stints in prison, they’ve usually lost their housing and become ineligible for most public housing. They’ve put themselves smack on the list of undesirables for private landlords, even if they could somehow find a way to scrape together first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit. If their family lives in public housing, they usually can’t move back home or the family may get evicted because of them.
Then there’s work. Finding a job is of the utmost importance, but it can be particularly hard for ex-offenders to find work, even with the right training and qualifications. Many employers refuse to hire ex-offenders, and legitimate employment opportunities can be hard to come by. This reality has inspired an entire movement – the “ban the box” movement – looking to remove the box asking about prior criminal convictions from initial job applications. The idea is that if employers delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process, ex-offenders might have a better chance of getting hired despite their criminal histories. Once employers engage ex-offenders as human beings, as opposed to as pieces of paper, they will have a better chance of evaluating the applicants on the merits of who they are. Given that 13 million people in our country have served time in prison or are convicted felons, it is essential for these people and for society that we find a way to make ex-offenders employable.
On top of the difficulties securing employment, many ex-offenders come out with crippling debt accrued while they were incarcerated. In many states, if ex-offenders have children, child support obligations accumulate the whole time they are in prison. So, even if they find work, the bulk of their wages may be garnished to cover back due child support. For example, forty-year-old Glenn Martin, was convicted in 1995 and spent six years in prison. When he went to jail, he had $300 in outstanding child-support debt and owed $100 a week as part of his regular court-ordered payment. But after six years in prison, with compounding interest, he owed $50,000 in child support. That means that 50-60% of his wages could be garnished for child support until the $50,000 debt is paid. And, with a conviction, food stamps are no longer an option thanks to short-sighted punitive cut-backs, so ex-offenders just have to find another way to make it all work. Failure to pay child support can mean loss of driver’s license and professional licenses (making it hard to keep a job) and then back to jail, this time for non-payment of child support. Glenn Martin made it all work by committing (and getting away with) an “unmentionable” crime to pay his back due child support, so that he could then subsist on the $17,000 per year salary of the job he was lucky enough to land. This is not the answer. But the conditions and demands ex-offenders face often lead well-intentioned people on a return path to jail because they have been left with no other options.
This past weekend, the Obama administration released 6,000 inmates who had been convicted of drug crimes and sentenced harshly. My heart goes out to each and every one of them as they begin the challenge of reentry. We cannot continue to treat ex-offenders like pariahs. We have to give them a realistic chance to return to society.