Since President Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the “war on drugs” in the 1980s, the number of drug offenders in prisons and jails has increased 1,100 percent. Today, 5 million formerly incarcerated people are living in the United States and, every year, 600,000 people are released from prison and face the daunting task of building a stable life for themselves and their family.
For most of us, a job is the basic building block to a life where you can, at the very least, provide the basics of food for your family, a place to live, money to pay the bills and put gas in the car. Forget a family vacation.
But, according to a report just released by the Prison Policy Initiative, employment is really hard to come by if you are one of these 5 million people.
Using national data that had never been compiled before, they found that formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27 percent — a rate higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.
Put another way, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is nearly five times higher than among the general population, creating “a counterproductive system of release and poverty, hurting everyone involved — employers, the taxpayers and, certainly, formerly incarcerated people looking to break the cycle.”
For formerly incarcerated people who are black or Hispanic — especially black or Hispanic women — unemployment rates are even worse, due in part to over-representation in arrests and incarceration in the first place, and then the conscious or unconscious racial bias of employers.
As Devah Pager found in her 2003 landmark study, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” Black job seekers without criminal records were less likely to receive callbacks from employers than white job seekers with criminal records.
Children are the unseen victims of this counterproductive, discriminatory cycle of poverty and incarceration. In a vexing story published in The Nation about the impact of the opioid crisis on Henry J. Kaiser Elementary School, in Ravenswood, eight teachers reported that they have at least two children in their classrooms with a parent who has been incarcerated on drug charges.
According to the widely cited Adverse Childhood Experience study, having a parent incarcerated is one of the traumatic experiences that significantly impacts a person’s mental and physical well-being later in life.
The story in The Nation also noted that, even though hiring has picked up again in Jackson County, people with felony convictions are not getting hired.
Given bleak employment numbers for the formerly incarcerated, we should be doing everything we can to remove barriers, not only to minimum-wage jobs but good-paying ones.
As one formerly incarcerated man interviewed for the West Virginia Criminal Justice Listening Project said, “I need a career, not a job.”
Unfortunately, there are roughly 114 laws in state code that severely restrict people’s access to professional licenses based on criminal convictions. These laws are written in broad and vague terms like “crimes of moral turpitude,” making it either impossible or risky for a person with a criminal record to pursue a professional license.
Fortunately, there are two policies that the West Virginia Legislature is considering that will help address the interlinked crises of drug addiction, over-criminalization and low employment among formerly incarcerated people.
One would reduce barriers to occupational licenses people with criminal records face, while balancing licensing boards’ need for discretion. Another would establish a sentencing commission to review the sentencing laws on the books.
A meaningful sentencing commission would make recommendations for sentencing laws that are based on evidence and outcomes and less on the paradigm of “lock ‘em up” that has resulted in a staggering incarceration rate and millions of felons, and children, with the deck stacked against them.
Policymakers, employers and all of us need to get serious about investing more in treatment, education and job training than in jails and prisons. Because nobody in America, except maybe pharmaceutical companies and the private prison industry, is winning in the war on drugs.
(This op-ed by AFSC's Lida Shepherd appeared in today's Charleston Gazette-Mail.)