Every week more than 10,000 ex-prisoners are released from U.S. prisons, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 650,000 each year. That's more people than the entire population of Boston -- or Seattle or Denver or Washington, D.C.
Today, dumb policies force too many of those ex-offenders back into a life of crime. My organization recently joined an effort to change some of those policies here in California, but that's not enough. Those changes need to happen nationwide.
Think about this: The vast majority of prisoners get out eventually, having paid their penalty, and most emerge with no job, little or no savings, and possibly even no home. To have a chance of establishing themselves in a law-abiding life, a few things are essential: Food and a place to live while looking for that first paycheck, opportunities for training or education to make themselves employable, the chance to reintegrate into society rather than standing apart. Without such basic supports, the chances they'll fall back into crime are way too high.
People do make it -- people like Clarence Ford, who went from being a 23-year-old ex-robber with basically no future to having a paying job, going to school and working with Safe Return, a California organization that works to give ex-prisoners a chance to succeed.
Right now, all sorts of punitive laws continue to punish ex-offenders after they've served their time. Many states, for example, restrict voting for ex-felons -- some permanently, some temporarily -- disenfranchising some six million Americans, according to the New York Times. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has rightly urged repeal of such laws, which not only stifle the voices of millions of Americans (disproportionately people of color), but also discourage them from being involved in their communities and connected to the society in which they live.
That has real consequences. Holder cited a Florida study which found that formerly incarcerated people who were banned from voting were three times as likely to re-offend as those who were permitted to vote.
Bear in mind that most ex-felons are neither violent nor dangerous. Felony offenses can be anything from passing a bad check to growing one marijuana plant (which is a federal felony).
And that leads me to some of the most draconian penalties, which haunt people who have been convicted of drug-related felonies for the rest of their lives. The 1996 federal welfare reform law permanently barred those who have been convicted of a drug felony from receiving benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps). States were given the chance to opt out, but only 13 states have fully opted out of the TANF ban while 13 enforce it fully and 24 enforce it with some modifications. The numbers for SNAP are similar, with a few variations.
Remember, these programs not only help people eat and pay the rent -- allowing them to get on their feet while looking for work and trying to re-enter society -- TANF also provides job training and employment assistance. Other laws bar many ex-offenders from public housing, federal loans to pursue their education and in some states from getting various sorts of business or professional licenses.
The effect is to slam the door on millions ex-offenders who want to earn a living legally. If you wanted to design policies to guarantee that these former prisoners will have little choice but to return to crime, it would be hard to think of a more effective approach.
According to a recent report from The Sentencing Project, these impacts disproportionately hurt women and people of color. Since 1980, the number of women in prison has been rising more than half again as fast as the number of men. Women are twice as likely as men to receive food stamps and make up 86 percent of TANF recipients. And while Latinos and African Americans use illicit drugs at about the same rate as whites, The Sentencing Project notes that "as of 2011, African Americans comprised 40.7 percent of prisoners in state prisons for drug crimes, while individuals of Hispanic origin made up another 21.1 percent of this population."
And there is no sign that these punitive policies do any good. They don't deter crime or drug use, for example, because hardly anyone knows these "collateral consequences" even exist until after they've been charged with a crime.
What they do accomplish is to make re-entry into society as law-abiding citizens far more difficult than it should be. As The Sentencing Project points out, large proportions of incarcerated people have histories of mental health issues, substance abuse, homelessness or physical or sexual abuse. "Without proper support," the report notes, "these individuals may continue to struggle with similar issues upon their release from prison." If denying them such support only hurt ex-prisoners, that would be bad enough, but forcing them back toward crime by denying them legitimate opportunities puts us all in danger.
That famous liberal George W. Bush said in his 2004 State of the Union address, "We know from long experience that if [former prisoners] can't find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit more crimes and return to prison. ... America is the land of the second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life."
President Bush was right. Federal and state laws that deny basic rights and survival benefits to ex-prisoners must change.