San Antonio Express-News - - BUSI­NESS - Chris Tom­lin­son writes com­men­tary about busi­ness, eco­nomics and pol­icy. chris.tom­lin­[email protected] twit­­lin­son


In­mates also earn more cred­its for good be­hav­ior and can gain re­lease ear­lier. The fed­eral prison sys­tem will re­lease be­tween 6,000 and 7,000 peo­ple ear­lier than planned this year, adding to the 1,700 re­leased ev­ery day.

How well these men and women tran­si­tion back into so­ci­ety de­pends on how the busi­ness com­mu­nity treats them.

A top pri­or­ity for a re­cently re­leased felon is a job. Nearly half won’t get hired in the first year.

Most em­ploy­ment forms, whether paper or on­line, have a box to check if the ap­pli­cant was ever con­victed of a felony. That check au­to­mat­i­cally bars the can­di­date from fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion in many cases.

Only 17 per­cent of whites and 5 per­cent of blacks with crim­i­nal his­to­ries get call­backs, ac­cord­ing to re­search by the Hamil­ton Project. Many more ap­pli­cants sim­ply stop fill­ing out the form when they see the box, as­sum­ing they are wast­ing their time.

There is a na­tional cam­paign to “Ban the Box,” but the Texas As­so­ci­a­tion of Busi­ness op­poses it. Em­ploy­ers want to know early in the process whether some­one is a felon. But ad­vo­cates say the in­ter­view is the bet­ter place to dis­cuss a per­son’s con­vic­tion, the cir­cum­stances of the crime and the like­li­hood of re­cidi­vism.

Dis­turbingly, though, some stud­ies show that where the box is banned, man­agers in­ter­viewed fewer African-Amer­i­can men, us­ing race as a stand-in for the box. Prej­u­dice is deeply per­sis­tent.

Rental ap­pli­ca­tions also have a felony box, and the re­sults are equally dev­as­tat­ing.

A for­mer pris­oner is 10 times more likely than the av­er­age per­son to be­come home­less within two years of re­lease. And since po­lice of­ten ar­rest home­less peo­ple for petty crimes, parolees can land back in prison.

Land­lord back­ground checks force for­mer felons into sub­stan­dard apart­ments, of­ten in high-crime neigh­bor­hoods. Such hous­ing makes it more dif­fi­cult for them to change their lives or com­mute to jobs in bet­ter parts of town.

Ex­perts be­lieve these bar­ri­ers to re-en­try con­trib­ute to the 37 per­cent re­ar­rest rate of for­mer felons within three years of re­lease, ac­cord­ing to a Pew study. And they worsen the high over­dose death rate within the first year of free­dom, ac­cord­ing to Brook­ings.

The U.S. in­car­cer­ates 698 of ev­ery 100,000 res­i­dents, five times more than other wealthy coun­tries. About 6.85 mil­lion Amer­i­cans are on pa­role, pro­ba­tion or cor­rec­tional su­per­vi­sion. We can­not af­ford to shun these peo­ple, ei­ther morally or eco­nom­i­cally.

A study of for­mer felons in the mil­i­tary found they were no more undis­ci­plined than other re­cruits, earned pro­mo­tions faster and reached higher ranks than nonof­fend­ers. Other stud­ies

found that work­ers with crim­i­nal his­to­ries are more loyal to the com­pa­nies that hire them and have fewer dis­ci­plinary prob­lems.

The First Step Act only ap­plies to fed­eral prisons, which hold just 13 per­cent of U.S. pris­on­ers. State sys­tems need sen­tenc­ing and prison re­form, and could re­lease more of our fel­low Amer­i­cans sooner, help­ing ad­dress the cur­rent la­bor short­age.

For­mer felons who are com­mit­ted to chang­ing their lives are some of the most emo­tion­ally vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple I’ve met. They of­ten de­scribe their jour­ney from prison to pro­duc­tive so­ci­ety as mov­ing to a for­eign coun­try where they feel painfully un­sure of them­selves.

If Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, and em­ploy­ers in par­tic­u­lar, can­not find a way to for­give and re­ha­bil­i­tate these peo­ple, they will end up bur­den­ing our com­mu­ni­ties with crime, ad­dic­tion or home­less­ness. We should al­low them to hold their heads up and make some­thing bet­ter of them­selves.

As­so­ci­ated Press file photo

In­mates grad­u­ate from an en­trepreneur­ship pro­gram. Their suc­cess de­pends on their treat­ment by the busi­ness com­mu­nity.

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