Due to recent attention on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform by presidential candidates and other politicians, we are beginning to see some policy changes and movement toward the release of non-violent drug offenders. These are good starting points, but we must take an honest, accurate look if we are to roll back mass incarceration. Exactly what are violent acts, and what amount of punishment is appropriate for violence?
All across the American prison archipelago, a large percentage of the 2.2 million prison population has been incarcerated for over 27 years. Most of these men and women entered prison when they were in their teens or early 20’s. As they age into their 50’s, years of trauma are generating mounting health problems costing billions of dollars to state and federal taxpayers.
At what point do we admit that long-term incarceration actually punishes society with massive tax burdens to house men and women who are no longer threats? When do we allow these people to become contributing members of society?
Nationwide over 90% of incarcerated people are eventually released. Then what? “Then what” should be the most important question we ask ourselves because the way we accept returning citizens back into society will ultimately determine a timeline for ending mass incarceration.
Paramount to rolling back mass incarceration is the creation of fair jobs and career opportunities for returning citizens. According to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) potential employers must explain why a returning citizen with the necessary skills is disqualified for a given job. Wholesale exclusions in the job market for individuals on probation or parole, sex offender registries, people with drug offenses and returning citizens who have finished their sentences is not acceptable or legal.
These illogical prohibitions from employment do not consider the facts that sex offenders have very low rates of recidivism, and people out of prison for seven years (whether on parole or not) commit crimes at the same rate as people who have never been convicted.
Policy makers must consider that returning citizens can’t wait until they get off of probation and parole to eat, nor can they wait seven years for a job or career – as is required by many potential employers. We invite companies to consider that employment obstacles like these guarantee higher crime rates, the creation of new victims, and the re-institution of mass incarceration because desperate people commit desperate acts.
Many employers do not seem to understand this concept although they claim to comply with the law. For example, a friend recently shared a contract they were asked to sign with an unnamed Fortune 500 company. On their opening page, this private company makes a proud announcement that they are following federal laws and regulations applicable to federal government contractors; they do not discriminate against race, color, religion, sex, creed, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
On the 25th page of the same contract, bold black writing details their true policy on regulatory compliance when they say: contract employees must have no felony in the past 7 years, cannot be on probation or parole, and cannot be on any sex offender registry. This Fortune 500 company is a perfect example of employers across America that ignore EEOC rules and lock out returning citizens with blanket policies.
The vast majority of returning citizens who can’t work for seven years are people of color. The vast majority of returning citizens who can’t work for 10, 15, 20, or 30 years because they are on probation or parole are people of color. So one must ask, are these barriers by Fortune 500 companies due to safety concerns or just plain old racism/felonism?
If we are going to be serious about ending mass incarceration, we first must be serious about job and career opportunities for returning citizens. To show their sincerity, Fortune 500 companies like the one we mentioned above, must ban the box AND lead the way to opening up their doors to all returning citizens who make up a desperate, loyal, and motivated workforce. With 65 to 70 million citizens now shackled with a felony conviction, how can we afford to deny our mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters meaningful re-entry into society?