What to do about re-entry of persons released from prison is a major problem. And regardless of how you feel about what people may have done in the past, the simple truth is that the vast majority of people who have committed crimes and go to jail will someday return to society. It is an issue we need to address, otherwise the cycle continues, we all know that.
Mayor Nutter today announced that he is ordering that Philadelphia will refer to “ex-offenders” as “returning citizens.” I get it. I generally like the idea. I just hope the City does more than simply change what they are calling people. I do believe that words have power and I do believe that changing the label can have an impact but it cannot replace better services for “returning citizens.” The best thing that we can do is to get people working. It seems to be a part of our basic fiber; most people derive a genuine sense of self-worth from work. It also keeps people busy, stops them from being idle, gives them a legitimate source of income, and gives them something to lose. The single greatest thing that we can do to reduce recidivism, in my opinion, is to assist with job training and more importantly job placement. The Mayor’s RISE program does help with job training and placement, but people still have significant problems finding work with a criminal record.
It really is time to consider a ban the box initiative statewide or offer better incentives for hiring and retaining people who are re-entering from prison. Businesses would be much more likely to consider hiring “returning citizens” if they were given strong tax incentives or other incentives to do so. Pennsylvania does have these incentives now, but I suspect that they do not go far enough since the problem is still significant. The other issue we face, which is part of the larger economic problem in our country, is a decline in demand for less skilled labor. Job training in these programs must be proactive in assessing the biggest employer needs at the moment and how the program might be able to train people to meet those needs. I appreciate this small step that the City is taking, but I hope that we continue to do more to meet the needs of our “returning citizens.” We cannot continue to ignore the problem. It will not go away.