What About Bob?

HARD TIME IS hard luck. But these days, getting out of prison can be even worse.

A typical example is Bob, who hopes to punch in this week on his first day of full-time work in eight years. For the past two years he's been temping, and the six previous years he spent in prison at Lino Lakes. Before his conviction on criminal sexual conduct, Bob drove a truck. He won't match his old pay loading and unloading boxes at his new job for $7 an hour. But if he can count on full-time hours, he figures he might be able to afford an apartment. For now, he jockeys nightly for a bed in the downtown shelters. Multiply Bob's story by 2.6 million--the number of people on parole during the Justice Department's last head count in 1990--and you get a sense of the crop we're sowing.

Economists aren't generally touted for their social consciences, but some number-crunchers are nervous about our incarceration frenzy. A recent item in The Wall Street Journal reported that economists are beginning to worry that "today's high incarceration levels could drag down future economic growth." Add prisoners to our unemployment stats, for example, and the jobless rates would jump a point and a half to 7.5 percent.

In a 1991 survey cited in the Journal, the Justice Department found 70 percent of inmates in state prisons earned less than $15,000 annually before their conviction, and fully one-third earned less than $5,000. In other words, the prison population is poor in the first place. No news there. But the extent of the problem is reaching epidemic proportions.

The U.S. prison population has tripled since 1980. In Minnesota, the total number on probation has tripled in the last decade. Last year, 68,774 adults were released from probation in the state. That's up by 16,000 probationers from just five years ago. At that rate, the number of probationers exiting the system annually will top 100,000 after the year 2000.

Following his release, Bob landed in a halfway house. Most halfway houses give you two weeks to find a job; Bob didn't find work for eight months. "Nine times out of 10 I wouldn't even make it to the interview," he recalls. Most job applications ask about criminal history, and when Bob checked "yes," interest in him dried up quickly. "They wouldn't come out and say it," he says, "but I could see the look on their faces."

In fact, if someone's been convicted of a job-related offense it's perfectly legal for an employer to reject their application. Using a criminal record as a blanket screening device is illegal, but common. "I expect that," shrugs Mike Davis, an employment advocate for ex-offenders. "I called a place the other day; they had an entry-level job and I told them I work with ex-offenders and they said, 'Well we'd rather not work with them.'" More often than not, when offenders do find jobs they're low-pay, low-skilled work--"proofreading M & M's," as Davis says.

The redline around ex-offenders extends to housing, where it's not only common and legal, but encouraged. Thanks to drug war-inspired laws, landlords are held legally responsible for crimes that take place on their property, and they have taken to relying on criminal checks to limit their liability. In fact, even the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority screens felons out of local housing projects. As a result, "It's more of a problem finding housing than jobs," Bob says. "I've applied at numerous places. A lot of landlords, as soon as they find out I have a record, they say, 'sorry.' So I've been living in a shelter close to three months. I've been in and out of almost every halfway house in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I even spent one night down at the General Assistance office on the floor." Soon to be employed, Bob can still look forward to several months of homelessness while he scrapes up damage deposit and rent.

Ultimately the problems faced by men like Bob are only worsening, both statistically (as more and more people add a prison term to their resume) and legally: In the political presto-chango machine, spending on education and employment opportunities both in and after prison translates into criminal coddling; states like Alabama, where the chain gang enjoys a resurgence, are considered the vanguard.

Unfortunately, employers aren't in need of rock crushers in Alabama or elsewhere. "Look. These folks are out there," says Kris Clendenen, director of EXCEL, a program for ex-offenders. "It's better that they're employed than not, and it doesn't take huge amounts of money to make that happen. The public takes a pretty narrow view of helping criminals, but if we want a restorative justice model, the community has some responsibility to see that offenders' needs are met." Given the current political climate, it seems more likely we'll just scrap restorative justice.

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