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Running on a Beach

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In an article in today’s New York Times, Newark (NJ) mayor Cory Booker compares trying to reduce recidivism rates and get ex-offenders jobs to “running on the beach.” It’s hard to make progress and it takes a helluva lot more energy than running on pavement. And the horizon just goes on forever.

According to the statistics in the article, 65% of ex-offenders in Newark end up right back in jail or prison within 5 years. This high number is due at least in part to the city’s high unemployment rate, which at 4.9 percent is twice the state average. On top of general unemployment, ex-offenders face multiple roadblocks in applying for jobs: discrimination against people with criminal records, federal bans on certain social services, an inability to get to work because of limited access to drivers’ licenses. It’s not a pretty picture. But employment is the key.

Mayor Booker recognizes this. It’s why he is offering tax breaks to companies that hire ex-offenders and creating rehabilitation programs around the city. Which is great. But reentry programs can’t do it alone. The way we treat our incarcerees sets the stage for their reentry and in large part determines whether or not they will be “rehabilitated.” As I have written before, if we block access to their mail, it’s less likely they will maintain the family connections that have been proven to ease the transition from incarceration to community. If we refuse to provide education or technical training programs, people will not have the skills they need to get and keep jobs. I don’t think any amount of post-release band-aiding will change that. So it’s a good start. And a necessary step. But it’s not enough.

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