Prison reform has bipartisan support. This makes sense, because there is a major opportunity here. The United States imprisons a higher percentage of the population than any other major country, prisoners cost taxpayers tons of money, their absence causes horrible problems for their families, and too many former prisoners end up resuming criminal activity.
Legal reforms minimizing imprisonment are clearly needed. But society will always have to imprison some people. We need to minimize the damage this causes and help former inmates avoid violating the law again.
An important contribution to these goals would be guaranteeing that everyone who is capable of working can find a job.
As things stand now, former prisoners go to the back of the employment line. Employers naturally hesitate to hire people lacking a good track record, and a criminal conviction is not considered a good sign. It is too easy for former inmates to fall through the cracks, forcing them to resort to crime in order to live.
A guaranteed job by itself would not be a panacea. As recent research indicates, newly released prisoners also need assistance in finding housing, acquiring the documentation (birth certificates, driver's licenses, etc.) needed to live in modern society, and learning to make good decisions.
But guaranteed employment would be extremely helpful.
Of course it would be crazy to guarantee a job only to people who have committed crimes. Indeed, we should arrange to guarantee employment for everyone even if no one were ever imprisoned, since the general social benefits of such a guarantee would be enormous.
But guaranteed employment would be especially helpful for released convicts. It would also reduce the number of convicts in the first place.
Employment is not just a matter of income. It would be possible for government to guarantee a minimum income for everyone without guaranteeing a job.
But as president Franklin D. Roosevelt indicated when his administration set up the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and the WPA (Works Progress Administration) during the Great Depression, it makes no sense to pay people for doing nothing if they could be doing something useful.
CCC and WPA workers built many useful infrastructure projects, including the only public swimming pool in Redmond, Oregon, where I lived while in grade school. And of course there is no scarcity of useful things that need to be done.
But beyond providing worker income and producing useful goods and services, jobs can be highly educational for those doing them, teaching habits of dependability and interpersonal skills that will be highly valued by other employers. And the jobs allow those who do them to feel that they are a valued and valuable part of society. It enables a dignified life.
One characteristic of dynamic societies like ours is that changing technology can destroy jobs, sometimes destroy whole industries, on rather short notice. Workers are morbidly aware of the danger that they will lose their jobs, and a general guarantee that the government will act as employer of last resort should be generally beneficial, not just for people who are being released from prison.
Workers who are tremendously unhappy would feel freer to quit and seek better jobs if they knew that government would hire them to do useful work if they failed to find something in the private sector.
Although many of the jobs provided by government might not be exciting ones, the recent pandemic has taught us that there are no unimportant jobs and that all workers contribute to the total public welfare. And of course government would have to pay these workers according to the minimum wage laws enacted by the selfsame governments, including legally required fringe benefits.
So let's hear it for prison reform, including guarantees that no one capable of working —including former prisoners — will be unable to find gainful employment!
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. Read Professor Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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