12/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Make Them Work for a Living

It's time to be really tough on criminals, make it so they have to get a job when they get out of jail -- let them suffer like the rest of us.

But over the last two decades, the New York State Legislature and governors have been doing precisely the opposite. New York State's prison population remains at or near record levels, with over 60,000 in state prison and over 20,000 currently on parole. The state has the dubious honor of having the fifth highest recidivism rate in the nation. We spend a staggering amount ($2.5 billion) to keep this whole system in place, while education, roads and infrastructure are grossly underfunded, particularly in the midst of this recession.

How we got into this bizarre situation is all about how too many politicians would rather not tell the public the full truth. Instead, they want simplistic solutions to toss at the electorate under the banner of "being tough on crime," while they have actually made it less safe rather than improving the security of our families and communities.

That's just what happened with the Rockefeller drug laws, which provided mandatory sentencing for certain kinds of narcotics offenses, filling the prisons with low-level offenders from Black and Brown communities, and then systematically making it virtually impossible for them to get employment or training when they finally are released. The State Legislature, over the past decades, has barred former felons from being barbers, plumbers and working in establishments where liquor is served and, to make life really interesting for the formerly incarcerated, banned them from living in public housing even if their families reside there.

It shouldn't be surprising then that hundreds of thousands of individuals in New York State with a criminal conviction end up paying for their often youthful mistake with jail time, parole, a lifetime of unemployment and, all too often, homelessness. And by cutting people off from any possibility of legitimate work, guess what? They end up again committing crimes against their fellow citizens. What a smart policy that only a very few elected officials could dream up.

That's why it was a pleasant surprise that our much maligned governor David Paterson understood the absurdity of making it impossible for the formerly incarcerated to work. Two weeks ago, his administration announced that $14 million in federal stimulus funds will be dedicated to reentry programs that will help the formerly incarcerated and those nearing release get back to work. The Governor also created the $5 million Transitional Jobs Initiative to provide paid, subsidized work experience combined with paid-education related to work for TANF eligible individuals, including the formerly incarcerated. And at long last, New York repealed the worst parts of the Rockefeller drug laws, but still needs to do more about promoting employment.

Lots more needs to be done to roll back some of the provisions that make it impossible for ex-felons to work, but I have some sense of hope that elected officials across the political spectrum are coming to understand that the best preventative from returning to a life of crime is a good paying job.

In some ways, this is like coming full circle on something that has been understood for a long time. In New York State, up until the early '80s, in order to get parole, you had to show you had a real job waiting for you. The state had a whole team of investigators to actually visit employers named by the prospective parolees. But the Rockefeller drug laws forced so many low-level offenders into the prison system that this approach was abandoned, effectively tossing people out of prison at the end of their time with no skills, limited education and virtually no possibility of gainful employment.

Now we have to fix the mess for the inmates, their families, their communities, and, of course, for us taxpayers who have had to foot the bill for what has to be one of the most ridiculous systems in America.