The criminal justice system is a complex area of policy development, where the Left and the Right often find themselves standing on surprisingly common ground. Considering public safety is generally the most expensive line item in government, (Maricopa County spends 53 percent of its $2.49 billion budget on criminal justice and public safety,) small improvements to the system could have large social and fiscal returns.
There are three general areas of public policy that affect the system: prevention, intervention, and redemption.
The main prerogative of redemption policies is reentry into society after an offender has served their sentence and paid their restitution. In other words – reducing the risk of recidivism. A major part of this equation is legal and gainful employment.
After all, it’s often claimed that a job, is the best alternative to a life of crime.
Ex-offenders face many obstacles to legitimate employment: meager skills, reticent employers, and regulatory burdens that present high costs and high barriers to entry, just to name a few.
Teach Them to be Something Other Than a Criminal
When evaluating recidivism rates, it is clear that the first three years after a convict is released are critical. That is why offering robust job training programs during and after their sentence is crucial to successful reentry.
This should be more than punching license plates. Teaching a convict new tools and more sophisticated skills give him opportunities to earn a better living than what a life of crime provides. Exposure to new thought processes and higher education is also more transformative to the individual and has better long-term prospects than simple existence and survival.
Over the last couple of years, Arizona has been making strides at working with the private sector to implement job training programs at our correctional facilities to give convicts nearing release an opportunity to train and acquire a job. Lawmakers need to take a closer look at the efficacy of these programs and explore ways to accelerate their adoption throughout the state.
Remove Regulatory Barriers to Job Opportunities
Though developing vocational programs and opportunities for convicts is important, their effectiveness will be limited without the removal of regulatory barriers preventing entry into the job market after release.
Occupational licensing restrictions is one area that is in need of reform. A year ago, ASU economist Stephen Slivinski wrote a comprehensive study on the correlations between occupational licensing and recidivism. In his study, Turning Shackles into Bootstraps, he found states with “the heaviest occupational licensing burdens saw an average increase in the three-year, new-crime recidivism rate of over 9 percent.”
One reason is that the licensing fees and costly time requirements simply price many job opportunities out of reach for most ex-felons. Complicating matters further is that occupational licenses are overseen by boards and commissions that have crafted overly broad “good moral character” requirements that effectively prohibit ex-felons from working in dozens of fields. Policymakers should take a closer look at the costs and unnecessary license restrictions that are preventing convicts from getting a job.
Another regulatory obstacle preventing convicts from finding work is their inability to obtain a driver’s license due to court ordered fines and penalties. Though intended to coerce payment of the fines, the practical effect is that convicts are prohibited from driving until all fines are paid, yet they need to drive in order to work. It is a catch-22 that must be fixed.
If it isn’t a Life Sentence, it Shouldn’t be a Life Sentence
For good reason, many employers feel uneasy about hiring a person with a record. Often when there are two qualified applicants for a position side-by-side, if one has a record and the other does not, the employer will opt for the applicant who based upon the available evidence poses lesser liability for the business.
One idea being proposed to address this issue is a concept called “ban the box,” which would limit an employer’s ability to inquire about past felony convictions on an application and typically delays it until after the in-person interview. Currently more than a dozen states have adopted this approach, nine of which directly prohibit private employers from asking about prior felonies on job applications. Additionally, Governor Ducey recently enacted a similar program for hiring state employees.
Though well-intentioned and potentially a good idea for state government, “ban the box” would result in unintended consequences if deployed in the private sector. Not only is it a clunky mechanism to try to engineer a certain outcome, some studies have shown it actually harms minorities without a criminal background. It is very likely that businesses would simply make other assumptions and implement alternative hiring tactics to sidestep the prohibition in the vacuum of information.
A possible alternative to ‘ban the box’ that is less intrusive and could accomplish the same goal would be to provide a narrow segment of ex-offenders (that meet certain criteria) an opportunity to seal their records. For example, if non-violent offenders comply with all court ordered sentencing, treatment, and do not recidivate over a substantial period of time (five to seven years), they could be allowed the opportunity to seal their records.
If a main premise of our justice system is the punishment should fit the crime, then once a person has served their sentence, their payment to society is complete. Select sealing of records strikes a balance between preserving public safety, allowing for employer discretion, while giving a low-risk population of ex-offenders a second chance at a clean slate.
Arizona, like every other state, is faced with complex and costly policy decisions when it comes to criminal justice. The time has passed culturally when it was acceptable to simply punish people and hope for the best. As a society we have recognized that we can do more. That everyone is better served by a compassionate system that holds individuals accountable while addressing root problems holistically.
Focused and strategic efforts to bring persons with a record into the workforce is significant. After all, honest work is more than a job; it’s self-sufficiency, it’s a source of pride, and it’s a future.