Taxpayers should pay to help ex-cons start businesses (Opinion)
Fifty bucks and a bus ticket is not exactly enough to start your life again after serving time. That's about the best a released prisoner is going to get after paying their debt to society. In Florida this "Gate Money" is a little better at $100, but still, not really that helpful when trying to rebuild a life. In New Jersey, the prisoners get what they saved in their prison account and what they may receive from family and friends while on the inside.
Prisoners who are working are earning far less than a minimum wage established by statute on the outside and in many cases, the cost of good is far greater than what you would pay at a local store. This is one of the reasons I believe that Kanye West took up the issue of the 13th Amendment and effectively, the lead in advocating for prison reform.
Although I do agree with Kanye that there has to be a better bridge for people re-entering society after serving hard time. Recidivism rates show us that the current rehabilitation and re-entry system is broken. A recent study shows that 5 out of 6 inmates released from state prisons will be arrested again within 9 years of their release.
I had an opportunity to speak with a former state inmate in New Jersey who told me he had $100 and a bus ticket to Newark after he got released from an NJ prison. Lisa Durden, one of my A+ panelists on Chasing News, introduced me to Laquan. Laquan is a single dad who served time in prison and came out with zero job prospects. This is the case with many inmates, some who don't even qualify for government benefits because of their crimes.
Laquan is a great example of a man with responsibility as a former inmate and single dad who needed to do something to provide for himself and his daughter. He took it upon himself to learn how to cook behind the walls and upon release, went out and literally built a food cart by hand. He went through the proper city channels in Newark to get a license to operate and a go-ahead from the health department and boom, three dollar fried fish sandwiches were available to the public. He's now making enough money to support his family.
It's important for society to recognize that in some cases, there are prisoners who should be kept behind bars longer because they are likely to commit more crime. But in other cases, men who are released commit crimes out of pure desperation having to provide food and shelter and unable to find legal work. Desperate men do desperate things. Laquan is an example of what one man with determination to stay out of prison and provide for his family would do if given the right opportunity.
How many more men like Laquan would be well served and become tax paying, productive and crime free members of the "outside" if given the tools and support to do so? How about job training in prison? Why not lower cost loans for these ex-cons to start businesses? It's a lot more expensive for our communities to reincarnate the ones who stay into illegal activity again.
Looking at the wages and cost of basic necessities for prisoners, it's no wonder that Kanye West talked about slavery not being completely abolished by the 13th Amendment. Looking at the recidivism rate of state prisoners, it's clear we need to act immediately. Here's what I would do:
1. Repeal "feel good" Block the box legislation, which puts the burden on employers to take an unknown risk hiring an ex-con. That's the wrong approach because it essentially tricks employers and creates suspicion among people who may be innocent.
2. Create tax incentives for businesses to hire ex-cons. Maybe dollar for dollar on a portion of the salary they will pay and have a growth incentive if the employee stays with the company and remains crime-free. Embrace the idea of being an ex-con. We talk about the shame of drug abuse and lament the fact that people don't want to discuss it. How about we talk about the mistakes people made, confront the mistakes and embrace the path to rehabilitation?
3. Create job training and business owning programs inside prisons to actively teach prisoners skills and accompany that training with entrepreneur classes teaching inmates how to open accounts and file for local government approvals. Can you imagine if we helped former inmates start their own independent, plumbing, HVAC or other service company? Maybe the incentive is tied to going back to the old neighborhood. Maybe we extend the program to troubled youth and prevent at-risk youth from following a path of crime?
How many prisoners would make outstanding entrepreneurs? I'll bet more than you might think. Many criminals are behind the walls for their involvement in the drug trade and very few are getting rich off of the illicit business.
Politicians like Cory Booker want you to believe that the incarceration rate is all about racism targeting the communities of people of color. His solution it to simply eliminate the criminal penalty for drugs and let people out. How does that help the other Laquan's who will be released with no real prospects of earning a living? Cory's answer is to simply give away more of YOUR money.
How about we stop with the 'soft on crime' and taxpayer giveaway programs, which have failed so badly that we now have more than 2 million people behind bars. This is not about bail reform, which may in fact let dangerous criminals out to prey on the innocent. This is not about legalizing pot into a society which struggles desperately against addiction. This is about channeling the aggressive and potentially highly productive energy of those who fell on the criminal side of the tracks doing what ever they could to generate income.
Give Laquan a chance and see how far he will go. As far as Laquan and his fried fish cart, he's thriving and isn't looking back.
Bill Spadea is on the air weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m., talkin’ Jersey, taking your calls at 1-800-283-1015. Tweet him @NJ1015 or @BillSpadea. The opinions expressed here are solely those of Bill Spadea.
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