Kathleen Murray’s blog “Out and Employed” is worth following if you’re interested in ex-offender issues. She recently highlighted some key findings of a 2008 study by the Brookings Institution on ex-offender re-entry issues. In the discussion paper she reviews, Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, argues for the creation of a national prisoner reentry program.
While I am unsure about the value of a national government program attempting such an ambitious undertaking, I am convinced that high-quality community-based transitional employment combined with transitional housing is one of the most effective ways to impact poor urban communities. I have four concerns with a national government program: the destruction of natural wages by such large pools of government run labor, the resulting unfair competition with private businesses, the political unpopularity of such a program, and the unwieldiness of administrating large groups of ex-offenders in depersonalized government run programs. But certainly, a government program that seeks to encourage private employment of ex-offenders or the creation of entrepreneurial businesses by ex-offenders (like the Prison Entrepreneurship Project) can lead to incarceration savings by lowering rates of recidivism.
I’ve written in the past that government could create more opportunity for ex-offenders by guaranteeing commercial liability insurance for employers seeking to hire felons. Many employers are willing to hire ex-offenders. They are just unable to because of liability insurance issues. The federal bonding program only protects against theft. It doesn’t offer any protection for an employer being sued over employment practices related to hiring an ex-offender. Government could easily make a big impact by minimizing this insurance concern.
Murray, in her blog post, also points out that “the majority of employers don’t want to be your first employer out of prison, but they wouldn’t mind being your second.” At the various transition employment enterprises at Belay Enterprises, we have certainly found that to be true. Indeed, our organization’s primary value to the community is being the first employer willing to take a risk on someone coming out of prison. Individuals then prove themselves as viable hires for subsequent employers. We just fight issues of scale related to the number of employees we can hire. A government program that encourages private business to hire and train ex-offenders could create far more opportunity than the non-profit sector.