Imagine if you had no place to live, no job and no money. What would you do to survive? To get by, would you commit a crime?
Former inmates are faced with these questions far too often. Ex-offenders confront one pressing re-entry challenge after another, everything from finding a place to live and arranging drug abuse treatment to getting a job. A setback in any one of these areas can easily lead to relapse and a return to prison, what public policy analysts call "recidivism." Researchers measure recidivism by looking at the criminal acts that ex-offenders commit in the three years after prison release. These days, researchers have a huge sample of ex-offenders to track.
Last November, changes to federal sentencing guidelines led to the release from custody of about 140 Maryland inmates, and hundreds more will be eligible for release in future months. Nationwide, the U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates that more than 46,000 inmates could have their sentences reduced by an average of 25 months; over 500 of them are expected to return to Maryland under these revised sentences, most to Baltimore.
These releases are taking place at a time when the city is experiencing an increase in homicides and shootings — and a deadly heroin epidemic. Such crime, many fear, will only increase when so many more inmates start returning to their home communities — a not unrealistic concern. The formerly incarcerated often find themselves facing the exact same pressures and temptations that landed them in prison in the first place. According to 2013 Maryland data, almost a third of Maryland prison admissions went to individuals returning to prison from parole.
So what can be done to keep people from cycling back into the system? Let's start with jobs, perhaps the single most pressing obstacle that frustrates the formerly incarcerated.
Baltimore and several other cities, including the state government, have passed necessary reforms like getting employers to stop asking on their employment forms if applicants have a criminal record. And this year, another new Maryland law — the Justice Reinvestment Act — expanded the range of low-level drug offenses and other misdemeanors that can be wiped from former offenders' records, which may make it easier for them to find jobs and housing.
But individuals with criminal backgrounds still face major hurdles in finding felon-friendly employment. And not finding employment, or finding employment at really low-wage levels, leaves ex-offenders unable to meet their daily living expenses and support their families.
This prison revolving-door needs to end. With a serious showing of corporate social responsibility, our large companies could help end it. They have the capacity to effect real change. Companies that offer employment opportunities to the formerly incarcerated have found that those who pay their debts to society typically emerge from prison with a new perspective and lease on life. They're used to working hard; they're grateful for an opportunity to earn a living.
And fidelity bonds and tax credits for companies willing to give the formerly incarcerated a second chance now offer firms an incentive to broaden their hiring focus. We have here a potential win-win opportunity — for companies, communities, and employees.
Sustainable employment may be our single best opportunity to significantly reduce recidivism. So let's do our best to make this employment a reality.
A development project now in the works at Port Covington offers us a chance to do just that. This recent agreement with Sagamore Development mandates that 30 percent of all on-site infrastructure work be performed by city residents.
Imagine what a difference we could make in the lives of the formerly incarcerated if Sagamore would also pledge that at least 10 percent of those city-resident positions would go to ex-offenders.
Vanessa Bright is a New Economy Maryland fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a family and consumer sciences educator for University of Maryland Extension. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.