As of August 2011, California’s unemployment rate is the second-highest in the nation, at 12.1%. People from all walks of life are struggling to find jobs. At the same time, according to statistics available from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there were 126,906 parolees in California. Of those, 92,645 returned to prison from parole — 71,837 for a parole violation and 20,808 for a new conviction. That is a 73% recidivism rate.
Without stable employment, it is almost impossible to put one’s life back together. This is where the current economic crisis raises its ugly head. Until our current economic crisis is over, the shrinking number of jobs and increased number of job-seekers, including parolees, creates a quagmire. Without drastically increasing the number of jobs in California, as well as in the rest of that nation, either (1) parolees will get the available jobs, lowering recidivism, but taking away jobs from non-offenders, or (2) non-offenders will get the jobs, thus indirectly increasing recidivism.
According to Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon, “At the end of 19th century, parole was mostly tied up with the idea of getting people work, and of using the labor market’s natural disciplinary quality to keep people under control.” Just as parents know when their kids are supposed to be at school, parole agents knew when their parolees should be at work. However, the obvious limitation to this system of control is the varying temperaments of the state and national economies. And as Simon has observed, “It didn’t work at all well during the Depression, when very few prisoners could rely on there being a job waiting for them when they got out.”
That is exactly the problem California is facing: How can we put parolees to work — and provide personal and economic stability upon re-entry — when the country is facing a deep recession?
In a nationwide study, the Pew Center on the States found that keeping an inmate in prison costs about $29,000 per year, whereas managing offenders on parole costs about $2,750 per year. That $29,000 per year is more than many people’s annual salaries, especially during this time of unemployment.
If parolees were guaranteed low cost — significantly less than $29,000 per worker — jobs upon release or otherwise aided by the government in finding viable employment, their rates of recidivism would decrease dramatically. The Department of Justice has found that an unemployed parolee is three times more likely to return to prison than an offender who has a job and that 83% of offenders who violated probation or parole were unemployed at the time of violation.
However, for every job given to a parolee, one is essentially taken away from a non-offending citizen. Although a parolee’s debt has been paid (or at least almost has been paid) to society, and we could stem the tide of rising discretionary corrections budget, for most Californians — and Americans — something just does not feel right about such an opportunity cost. As long as the jobs market continues to struggle, any assistance provided to parolees takes away opportunities to ordinary citizens.
Obviously, the best solution is a stable and growing economy. If there are enough jobs for everyone, then there is no problem. However, in the meantime, the imbalance between jobs and parolees must be dealt with creatively, probably through engaging in a large number of low-cost infrastructure projects designed to literally and figuratively fill California’s potholes.
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