Incoming Attorney General Kamala Harris has set reducing California's out-of-control recidivism rate as her number one priority.
But a sickly job market will make her pledge "to close the revolving door on crime" exceptionally hard to carry out. Currently two-thirds of inmates who leave state prison find themselves back behind bars within three years of being released, more than 20 percent higher than the national average.
A new report from the UC Berkeley Law School makes a powerful case that having a job is a key factor in helping former prison inmates stay out of prison. The report, titled "Reaching a Higher Ground," documents the overwhelming obstacles former inmates face in the job market – and proposes strategies to overcome them.
"A long history of research confirms that, all else being equal, contact with the criminal justice system reduces one's employment opportunities," the report states. Conversely, "employment of people recently released from incarceration is a proven strategy to reduce recidivism, achieve cost savings, reduce victimization and promote public safety."
The report, which was produced by the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice based on the work of a high-powered 15 member Advisory Board consisting of a police chief, sheriff, chief probation officer, district attorney, business executives and others, should be essential reading for Harris, as well as for that matter incoming Gov. Jerry Brown.
As district attorney in San Francisco, Harris established a successful "re-entry program" called Back on Track for 18-24-year-old low-level, non-violent offenders, mostly small time drug dealers. By successfully participating in the program, run in conjunction with Goodwill Industries, offenders could completely expunge their criminal records.
In dealing with inmates from state prisons, the task for Harris will be immeasurably more difficult, in part because offenders in state prison are there for far more serious crimes, they are likely to have served longer sentences, and especially after serving lengthy sentences are unlikely to have the skills necessary to succeed in a highly competitive, depressed job market.
The Berkeley report cites surveys that show that 40 percent of employers either "probably" or "definitely" would not be willing to hire applicants with a criminal record, and that 60 to 80 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed one year after being released from prison.
The report points out that millions of Californians are now in the state's criminal history file – which automatically makes it difficult for them to get a job because of background checks conducted by employers.
Some of the recommendations in the report should be relatively easy to implement such as ensuring that everyone leaving prison has a usable form of personal identification.
Others will be more difficult to implement but could be instituted in the event lawmakers choose to invest the necessary resources into making them happen.
For example, inmates' skills should be assessed while they are still in prison "to determine the most appropriate educational programs, vocational training, and job placement." There is also clearly a need for more programs along those lines. Almost half of California inmates did not participate in any rehab or work program during their time in prison, the report states. Some 23,000 inmates are on waiting lists to get into these programs.
The situation is even worse once they leave prison: An astonishingly low 10 percent of all parolees participate in vocational or educational programs while under community supervision.
What Attorney General-to-be Harris will have even less control over is convincing employers to hire former inmates with criminal records. Among other things, this will require engaging employers "as strategic partners in shaping programs and training on an ongoing basis," as well as making sure that vocational and educational programs are "responses to local needs and growth industries."
It is significant that Harris has already gotten a head start on many of these recommendations in San Francisco where she played a leadership role in establishing the Reentry Council, a body formally recognized by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and now part of the city charter. It came about after intensive discussion with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, labor, and other key stakeholders and focuses on all offenders coming back to the city from state prisons as well as from local custody. Its draft report can be found here. Other counties could no doubt benefit from similar initiatives and learn from San Francisco's experience.
Katy Miller, directing attorney of reentry in Harris' office, said a major focus of the Reentry Council is on providing skills training to ex-offenders. "The economy has been hard on everyone looking for jobs," she said. "More than ever, if you are not qualified, you are not even going to get in the door."