By Jodi Hansen
POVERTY IS THE MOTHER OF CRIME My mother is the queen of the common proverb. She was a school teacher, always capitalizing on what she called “teachable moments” and she loved using popular sayings to scold and mold her children. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; Don’t put your eggs in one basket; Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” were a few of the litany of famous axioms we routinely heard in our home.
One of her favorites in encouraging us to get an education and a good job was “Poverty is the mother of crime.” She basically threatened us with becoming criminals if we failed to achieve middle-class, self-sufficiency. We were groomed from a very early age to work hard and get an education. We knew what kinds of citizens we were supposed to be when we grew up, and achieving social and financial stability was not a negotiable life goal.
But, folks who intersect with the criminal justice system are not always groomed in such a way. Generational cycles of poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence, and racial discrimination often collude to ensure that some of our citizens will grow up to be poor; and in many cases, that poverty will give birth to a criminal lifestyle. So, if poverty is the mother of crime, are employment and education the antidote?
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION IS WORTH A POUND OF CURE According to a Poverty Action Lab article, summer youth employment programs for high risk youth do, in fact, reduce crime. Evidence of significant reductions in crime in the young people who participated were noted, not only when the participants were working, but also long after the eight-week program was completed. This is huge because a criminal conviction will greatly decrease a person’s chances of getting a good job. Even being convicted of a misdemeanor can hurt when 9 out of 10 employers are doing background checks of some kind.
So, if providing youth with good education, job training, and employment opportunities keeps them from committing a crime, it seems that funding these kinds of programs would be worth the up-front costs to avoid the very expensive price tag of dealing with criminality later. An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE TOUGH GET…DISCOURAGED But, we haven’t funded enough of these preventative programs for at-risk youth and we have become dependent on incarceration as a way to deal with most criminal behavior. So, we have a lot of folks coming out of prison and facing almost insurmountable roadblocks when it comes to achieving stability. Even as the US economy recovers and unemployment levels drop, for those who have spent time in our prisons and jails the unemployment rate stays steady at 27%. This is worse than the general unemployment rate during the Great Depression!
In my years of working with justice-involved adults, I have witnessed many determined men and women working hard to turn their lives around after a criminal conviction. Sadly—and far too often—getting a GED or college education or learning new job skills while on the inside doesn’t deliver the hoped-for results once someone is released. It is heart-breaking to watch a single mother who has been the victim of domestic violence—often the causative factor in addiction-driven crimes—work her ass off to make ends meet at low wage jobs because no one will take the chance she could fill a better paying position with more responsibility. When the going gets tough, the tough get going; but too often they run into a door being slammed in their face.
NO MAN IS AN ISLAND But, those of us who were groomed from an early age to be law-abiding and successful citizens CAN make a difference. As the economy improves and the labor market gets tighter, businesses are beginning to see that hiring workers with criminal records is going to be important to future economic success. Studies show the return on investment to taxpayers for helping the previously-incarcerated obtain good paying jobs is great for our communities.
But, first we have to acknowledge that justice-involved citizens are our neighbors and friends, and that we are all connected. We can no longer delude ourselves into believing that THEIR problems are not OUR problems if we want to solve THE PROBLEM. Reforming the way we arrest, charge, convict, sentence, and then hire our most expensive citizens is crucial to making our neighborhoods healthy, happy and wise. (Yeah, I really did just slip that one in there. ;-)
NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION It’s time to get serious about investing in the success of the previously-incarcerated if we want our neighborhoods to be safe and healthy. But, where do we start?
Luckily, there are awesome resources that can help us forward. Lucius Couloute and Daniel Kopf in their report Out of Prison, Out of Work give us some concrete suggestions for removing the barriers that keep our neighbors-in-transition from achieving the crime-preventing economic stability we want for all our citizens:
1. Issue a temporary basic income upon release: Short-term financial stability for formerly incarcerated people is a game changer. This would greatly decrease the temptation to resort to crime to meet basic needs, which will ultimately cost taxpayers less in the long run.
2. Implement automatic record expungement procedures: Let’s take into account the type of offense and length of time since sentencing, and release some of these folks from being labeled for the rest of their lives.
3. Make bond insurance and tax benefits for employers widely available: Incentivizing and protecting employers who hire people with criminal records will greatly expand opportunities for the previously-incarcerated to obtain a living wage job moving them off the roles of public assistance for food and housing.
4. Ban blanketed employer discrimination: Making a mistake doesn’t mean you will always be a bad employee. But worse is that some employers use their right not to hire those with criminal records to discriminate against people of color and women. This has got to change.
5. Enact occupational licensing reform: Not all crimes make someone a bad childcare worker or teacher or nurse. Having a criminal background should not automatically disqualify a person from occupations that require licenses.
A RISING TIDE LIFTS ALL BOATS The past five decades of war-on-drugs and tough-on-crime justice have left us with roughly 70 million adults with a criminal record. So, if one in five of us has a criminal record, shouldn’t all of us assume some responsibility for helping our neighbors reach their goals and contribute to our society in productive and fruitful ways? How long do we intend to make them pay for their mistakes? How long do we intend to perpetuate cycles of poverty and crime with our discouraging and discriminatory hiring practices?
I often wonder if I had been raised in a poor, drug effected, non-white or violent neighborhood—void of the wisdom of my mother’s persistent proverbs—would I have ended up in prison? Would you?