Repeat offenders may be Harris’ biggest challenge

December 7, 2010

Incoming Attorney General Kamala Harris has set reducing California’s out-of-control recidivism rate as her number one priority.

But a sickly job market will make her pledge “to close the revolving door on crime” exceptionally hard to carry out. Currently two-thirds of inmates who leave state prison find themselves back behind bars within three years of being released, more than 20 percent higher than the national average.

A new report from the UC Berkeley Law School makes a powerful case that having a job is a key factor in helping former prison inmates stay out of prison. The report, titled “Reaching a Higher Ground,” documents the overwhelming obstacles former inmates face in the job market – and proposes strategies to overcome them.

“A long history of research confirms that, all else being equal, contact with the criminal justice system reduces one’s employment opportunities,” the report states. Conversely, “employment of people recently released from incarceration is a proven strategy to reduce recidivism, achieve cost savings, reduce victimization and promote public safety.”

The report, which was produced by the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice based on the work of a high-powered 15 member Advisory Board consisting of a police chief, sheriff, chief probation officer, district attorney, business executives and others, should be essential reading for Harris, as well as for that matter incoming Gov. Jerry Brown.

As district attorney in San Francisco, Harris established a successful “re-entry program” called Back on Track for 18-24-year-old low-level, non-violent offenders, mostly small time drug dealers. By successfully participating in the program, run in conjunction with Goodwill Industries, offenders could completely expunge their criminal records.

In dealing with inmates from state prisons, the task for Harris will be immeasurably more difficult, in part because offenders in state prison are there for far more serious crimes, they are likely to have served longer sentences, and especially after serving lengthy sentences are unlikely to have the skills necessary to succeed in a highly competitive, depressed job market.

The Berkeley report cites surveys that show that 40 percent of employers either “probably” or “definitely” would not be willing to hire applicants with a criminal record, and that 60 to 80 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed one year after being released from prison.

The report points out that millions of Californians are now in the state’s criminal history file – which automatically makes it difficult for them to get a job because of background checks conducted by employers.

Some of the recommendations in the report should be relatively easy to implement such as ensuring that everyone leaving prison has a usable form of personal identification.

Others will be more difficult to implement but could be instituted in the event lawmakers choose to invest the necessary resources into making them happen.

For example, inmates’ skills should be assessed while they are still in prison “to determine the most appropriate educational programs, vocational training, and job placement.” There is also clearly a need for more programs along those lines. Almost half of California inmates did not participate in any rehab or work program during their time in prison, the report states. Some 23,000 inmates are on waiting lists to get into these programs.

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