There’s no doubt that convicted felons often face a difficult time reentering society after leaving prison. One particular difficulty is finding gainful employment. But while the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not break down employment stats for felons, in 2011, the New York Times reported –- alarmingly -– that “various studies have found unemployment rates of 50 percent or higher for former prisoners nine months or a year after their release.” Perhaps needless to say, this is not helpful in reducing recidivism.
There are numerous approaches to dealing with this problem. Perhaps states should invest in more job training programs in prison, so that criminals can gain useful skills while they’re behind bars. Some states have re-entry programs – perhaps these should be expanded. On the more extreme end, several states and cities have “banned the box” – that is, barred employers from asking applicants whether they have a criminal record.
What would seem to take the laudable goal of landing felons a job rather too far is the practice of literally paying employers to hire criminals. Leave it to Portland, Oregon (and the federal government), to do just that.
In his “State of the City” address late last week, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales announced a new city-funded $5,000 “tax credit” (i.e. a subsidy) for each felon hired by local businesses. This would be larded on top of a smaller (maximum $2,400) federal tax credit that business that hire felons have long been eligible for.
Mayor Hales’s initiative would take the perverse effects of affirmative action to new extremes. Why should taxpayers pay a business to hire a felon – but not, say, a single mother, or a person who has been unemployed for at least six months, or, indeed, a crime victim? More broadly, what is the moral basis for tilting the playing field in favor of those who have transgressed against their fellow citizens over those who haven’t? Surely there are better, fairer ways to help felons than to encourage, through financial incentives, discrimination against the law-abiding.
And by the way, given that there’s a decent chance that Mayor Hales will be applying for new jobs after the next election, he may want to reconsider the wisdom of his plan. Unless he has a felony conviction we don't know about.