Policy Wars Aren’t Progress

Guest Blog – Gregg Keesling of RecycleForce

The great American wars of the last 50 years, the War on Poverty and the War on Crime and Drugs are wars of rancor that have defined American society. In many ways, these major policy initiatives have worked against one another. Even after the expenditure of trillions of dollars, neither has made lasting impacts on its stated purpose: helping citizens escape the devastation of poverty or protecting law-abiding citizens from the damage of crime and drugs. I propose it is time to stop declaring policy wars on our own people, regardless of how deeply and well-meaning are our intentions and beliefs.

Our criminal justice reentry system is one place in which these wars work at cross purposes. It is important to remember that reentry is after the crime and the time.  Reentry is a different issue than sentencing reform.  While I am a proponent of sentencing reform, the impact of lighter sentences is muted if one cannot effectively find their way after they have done the time.

Our current reentry system relies heavily upon punishment and retribution, often referred to as “tail, nail, and jail”, to ensure compliance with reentry rules. Certainly, some citizens have proven to be too malicious to share in civil society, but since 97% of those we imprison will be released after they have done their time, they deserve a fair chance to become law-abiding citizens. A system with few opportunities for redemption not only makes it difficult for returning citizens to find their way in civil society, but often makes them even more disconnected from civil society once they have violated, are sent back, and then released again. By too strongly defining our release system rules in terms of punishment and retribution, we ensure that large numbers of returning citizens remain the “left-behinds” of the great American society.

These facts are well known among academics and many policymakers, yet not enough is being done to truly transform the institutions of parole and probation into systems of personal and community transformation. Systems that don’t put ex-offenders into financial situations where they cannot find a good job, provide for themselves and their families, or purchase court-ordered tracking devices and drug tests. When a person reenters society they are typically placed on strict compliance monitoring.  A majority of those who “violate” during periods of parole/probation don’t return to a prison or jail cell because they were caught making another drug deal or holding up a convenience store – a majority are sent back into the penal system because they can’t afford the court-ordered counseling, tracking devices, and drug testing.

Why can’t they afford these final pieces of their incarceration? They cannot find a job that can be coordinated with criminal justice oversight.

At ReycleForce we have created a place where we transform lives. Men and women enter our program and shed their street names and are addressed as “Mr. Jones” and “Miss Jackie”. They earn a steady paycheck in a job that has been designed to work with criminal justice oversight. Our clients earn a wage that competes with dealing drugs or shoplifting, without the associated risks.  Besides our employees earning an income and receiving important job training skills, the people who dedicate themselves to change have a chance to reconnect with their humanity.

Although crime is a symptom of poverty and lack of opportunity, it is also a moral failure – a moral failure of the person who commits the crime, and also of the system that makes getting a job, a step necessary to ensure stability and survival upon reentry, as well as meet key reentry requirements, difficult. A transitional job system[1] offers a way to help returning citizens most at risk – those with low education attainment, behavioral health issues, little work experience, and a lack of positive role models – while simultaneously increasing public safety by providing criminal justice oversight in a way that allows for more effective monitoring of those who are most likely to slip back into crime. Transitional jobs, time-limited wage-paying employment, that is combined with job skills training and supportive services that help individuals facing barriers to employment succeed in the workforce, can effectively mesh poverty alleviation strategies and criminal justice oversight and can shift the reentry system to one better focused on second chances, redemption, and public safety.

Data from the US Department of Labor’s (USDOL) random control study of transitional jobs, the Enhanced Transitional Jobs Demonstration,[2] is promising. RecycleForce, a local transitional jobs employer and participant in that study, is excited as that data is about to be shared publicly. RecycleForce’s study outcomes suggest that its model of transitional jobs offers an effective pathway out of poverty for returning citizens with significant barriers to employment and does not clash with criminal justice oversight, as many current poverty strategies do. People released from prisons and jails need jobs that offer a way up the career ladder and the chance to support themselves through work and individual responsibility and a transitional job can provide that.

Transitional jobs are not a panacea. Anyone who claims to have an easy answer to the problems of poverty and crime is simply misguided. But transitional employment, effectively integrated with strategies designed to lessen the impacts of poverty and mitigate the often heavy hand of oversight, can change the norms developed from our social wars on poverty, crime, and drugs. My protagonist Frank Zappa famously said, “Without deviation from the norm progress is not possible.”  Maybe reentry is the place to start to break the rancorous norms that have developed in the 50 years of these peculiar policy wars.

[1] Heartland Alliance
[2] Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation