Immediately after Californians voted in favor of Proposition 47—which redefined nonviolent felonies—last November,lawyers’ phones started ringing. The goal of this legislation—called the “The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act” by its supporters—is to keep low-risk, nonviolent offenders out of prison in the first place. But for thousands of Californians, it means less time behind bars, and reentry into the outside world sooner than expected.
In advance of the Zócalo/California Endowment event “How Will California’s Sentencing Reform Affect Communities?”, we asked criminal justice scholars the following question: What is the most important factor in keeping parolees from reoffending?
“Going straight” requires social capital
The most important factor that keeps parolees from reoffending is their willingness to “go straight”: to lead law-abiding lives. Too often, their ability to do so is limited by their lack of opportunity to earn a decent living.
Employability is often related to what sociologists call “human capital,” including education and marketable skills. But equally important in the job market is social capital, which involves an employer’s receptivity to the person, whatever human capital he or she brings. Many employers harbor prejudices against ex-offenders; having a criminal record diminishes a person’s chance of being hired. Moreover, some employers are unwilling to take a chance on those who resemble the formerly incarcerated, and race is often a determining factor in their decisions. Impoverished, often through no fault of their own, many men and women of color are driven to improvise livelihoods on the margins of the mainstream economy.
Parolees and non-offenders alike congregate, and even groups of law-abiding young men and women of color may attract the attention of the police. Simply associating with or resembling “suspicious” individuals can also put parolees and non-offenders at risk of being on the wrong side of the law. Early encounters with police set up black youth to be identified as criminals before they have a chance to become employable.
This combination of limited human capital, social connections, and prejudice undermines the credibility of both parolees and young black men and women as law-abiding citizens, setting the stage for their repeated incarceration.
Jobs stop bullets
Over four decades ago, sociologist and former prisoner John Irwin argued in his classic book, The Felon, “The great majority of criminal ex-convicts who remain out of prison and reach some level of fulfillment, gratification, and dignity do so by finding their way into some relatively conventional career.” Studying the crime-work link in various times and places (for example, post-war Boston vs. contemporary Finland) and using a wide range of research methods, scholars have validated Irwin’s basic claim: Employment (especially employment that leads to a career) is the most important factor in keeping parolees from reoffending.
Work is essential because people who can’t afford basic necessities may return to crime to get them, or they may act out violently. But employment is not just—or even mainly—about dollars and cents. University of Washington sociologists Robert Crutchfield and Susan Pitchford put it this way: “It is not simply the income of work that is important; it is thestability that goes with good work … that inhibits criminality.” Dignified work that provides solid wages and sufficient hours pulls individuals away from criminality. Employed parolees have less time and energy to engage in illicit activities and are gradually isolated from old associates still in the crime game. Over time, these individuals become hopeful, leave behind their old ways, and age out of crime.
In short, the scholarly research supports the motto of Homeboy Industries, the acclaimed nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that provides job training and other services to former gang members and ex-prisoners: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
Prison’s design flaw
The American prison system has a design flaw: Instead of preparing individuals for success, prisons condition people for failure. Because of this flaw, many parolees find themselves returning to prison when they should be working toward sustainable lives.
Unfortunately, our prison system’s design flaw does more than contribute to high recidivism rates. The flaw also contributes to intergenerational cycles of failure—grandparents, parents, and children in poverty and prison—and societal breakdown.
The American criminal justice system mistakenly measures justice by the turning of calendar pages rather than by evaluating an individual’s commitment to reconcile with society and live as a law-abiding citizen. Until we correct that design flaw, we will continue to see prisoners adjusting in ways that ease their journey through prison. Many join gangs; others waste their time with table games and reality television. Instead, we should build a more productive system that encourages offenders to prepare for success upon release. As days turn into weeks, and months turn into years, the current system presents prisoners with a unified message: “You’ve got nothin’ comin’.” The message from other prisoners isn’t any more empowering. Prisoners live by a culture of disconnecting from the outside world, focused on the toxic atmosphere of confinement.
Reducing the number of parolees who reoffend will require an innovative solution that begins with redesigning our prison system. That redesign should start with us figuring out why we’re incarcerating so many people in the first place. By asking what we want incarceration to do, we can reverse engineer our way to success. If we want fewer parolees to reoffend, let’s incentivize a pursuit of excellence for prisoners in the system that carries over into their release.
LEE E. ROSS
Investing in parolees’ lives
As of 2013 there were approximately 853,200 Americans on parole. That’s one out of every 286 people in this country. The re-incarceration rate among parolees has remained stable at about 9 percent since 2013. Prior research indicates that success rates for parolees are highly dependent on the conditions under which they are released. Securing employment is one of those conditions. Yet the ability to secure meaningful employment is a function of myriad factors, including the effectiveness of supervision while on parole.
The idea behind planting seeds is that “you reap what you sow.” The phrase appears as “whatsoever a man soweth, that he shall also reap” in the King James Version of the New Testament. When we plant seeds, we begin to invest in the lives of parolees to ensure their success and eventual rehabilitation. As employers, we begin planting seeds by providing meaningful job opportunities for parolees struggling to re-enter society. Another way to plant seeds is to encourage parolees to serve as mentors and counselors to newly adjudicated delinquents. Beyond these examples, there are some important measures our system should consider to help ensure the success of parolees:
– Remove the impediments that prevent parolees from finding affordable public housing.
– Make mandatory drug treatment a condition of release.
– Provide tax breaks and incentives to small businesses that hire non-violent felons.
– Appeal laws that disenfranchise convicted felons.
– Educate people on the collateral consequences of the prison industrial complex.
– Utilize evidence-based research to better understand the conditions that foster recidivism.
Taken collectively, these measures can go a long way to ensure parolee success.
Lee E. Ross, Ph.D., is associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida. As editor of Continuing the War Against Domestic Violence (CRC Press, 2014), Dr. Ross is a qualified expert witness in criminal trials involving domestic violence.