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Helping Ex-cons Find Work

Brad's post below on the re-entry of newly released prisoners into mainstream society touches on an important issue that was a subject of much discussion at a fascinating Brookings Institution panel yesterday on facilitating and rewarding work (see here for their solid policy recommendations). Bruce Western, a sociologist whose work focuses on the social effects of incarceration, gave a talk in which he recommended, as Brad does, that states adopt incentives for employers to hire newly released prisoners.

The panel discussion following Dr. Western's presentation, though, highlighted the problem with this approach: it's not as though it actually creates more jobs, it merely shifts existing jobs away from ordinary unskilled workers (many of whom, particularly in the African-American community, are having a hard time finding employment in the first place) to ex-felons. This isn't to say that many--even most--wouldn't make good use of a second chance, but it's hard to justify social policies whose beneficiaries aren't even the most deserving among the needy. (Sebastian Mallaby, incidentally, identified a similar problem with the Bush/Paulson subprime relief plan: "Given that they hold some responsibility for borrowing too much, subprime borrowers are not society's most unambiguously deserving group." Shouldn't we give at least as much assistance to low-income folks who didn't take out risky loans they were unlikely to be able to pay back?)

In the end, the better way to help ex-felons get back on the path to responsible citizenship is the same way to help all other unskilled workers: provide widely available job training and wage subsidies to make the prospect of holding a full-time job both more realistic and more rewarding.

--Josh Patashnik