Criminal Justice Reform For The Skeptics

Bryant Jackson-Green Policy Analyst, Illinois Policy Institute
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Though criminal justice reform is having a moment of increasing bipartisan support, not all conservatives are convinced. Those who lived through the high-crime eras of the ’70s and ’80s are unsure whether reducing sentences, even for low-level drug offenses, would be the wisest way to protect the largely declining crime rates the U.S. has enjoyed over the last 25 years.

But one critical fact about the criminal justice system should give even skeptics reason to support some reforms: 95 percent of inmates in our nation’s prisons eventually will be released. That’s more than 650,000 people each year who, if they can’t get jobs and become productive citizens, are far more likely to recidivate. Each one who commits a new crime represents not only a new public-safety threat, but also a steep cost to taxpayers as another corrections-system round kicks into gear. Even those who oppose sentencing reforms should see the financial and moral good in re-entry policies that enable former offenders to support themselves.

The U.S. criminal justice system is exorbitantly expensive, costing taxpayers over $39 billion annually in prison costs alone — to say nothing of what is paid for courts, police and related administration. This has led a new generation of reformers, notably fiscal conservatives in states like Texas, Georgia and Utah, to look critically at how limited taxpayer resources are expended on incarceration.

But a fair critique of this movement points out that if states focus only on shortening sentences without addressing crime’s root causes, criminal justice reform will fail. Long-term corrections costs may even increase as states contend with offenders cycling through jails and prisons at an even faster rate.

In many states, nearly 50 percent of everyone exiting prison in a given year will commit new crimes and return to prison a few years later. Right now, entire communities exist within major cities like Chicago where most adult males have criminal records. We can’t simply leave them locked out of the mainstream legal economy, or this cycle will continue at never-ending, ever-increasing taxpayer expense. And we can’t allow more generations of children to be raised in households with unemployed parents who keep falling back on crime as a means of survival. Conservatives who claim to be defenders of the family must show it by supporting family-building policies.

So how can society help ex-offenders to help themselves?

The answer is the same framework that built the American middle class — opportunity and employment. Research has long shown that former offenders who find stable jobs are much less likely to return to crime after release. The non-partisan Urban Institute, in a study of employment among former offenders in Texas, Ohio and Illinois, found that those employed within two months of release were less likely to be incarcerated a year later.

Policy makers and reformers need to confront this problem openly and honestly, instead of pretending we can simply warehouse our way out of crime. To be sure, education and vocational training for inmates is key. But we also need to be thinking about what happens after release. What else can be done to encourage economic opportunity and self-sufficiency?

To start, states and localities need to stop actively undermining employment prospects through occupational licensing restrictions. The American Bar Association lists hundreds of professional and business licenses each state can or must refuse to issue to people with records. These include occupations like cosmetologist, barber, roofer and registered nurse. Almost a third of U.S. workers already are employed in fields that require occupational licensing. Decisions about who to hire should be left to businesses, not the government.

Some states, like Illinois, even run vocational programs in prison that teach barbering, only for some inmates to be denied the right to practice when they apply for a license — an astounding waste of resources. If government makes it too hard to find work, we can expect less of it — and will foster more welfare dependence and crime, instead.

Next, states can help remove the disincentives for private employers to hire ex-offenders by limiting the risk of negligent hiring liability lawsuits. These lawsuits are rare. But the concern among the business community is real enough that it affects hiring practices. Fifty-two percent of employers have said they conduct background checks explicitly because of concerns about negligent hiring lawsuits, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Hiring liability reform would give more employers the confidence to take a chance on a former offender. After all, liability for an offense should lie with the individual who commits it — not an unwitting employer.

Not everyone will agree on every proposal for criminal justice reform — and a healthy debate about the ends and means of our criminal justice system is a good thing. But it’s clear enough that reform won’t work if economic opportunity remains out of reach after prison or parole. Removing barriers to employment is one necessary part of reform that everyone — even the skeptics — should agree we can start on today.

Bryant Jackson-Green is the criminal justice reform policy analyst with the Illinois Policy Institute, a free market think tank based in Chicago.