Michigan spends $35,000 a year to keep someone in prison — more than the cost of educating an in-state tuition-paying University of Michigan student (NYT). That is a crazy amount of money. 27% of American families (families! not individuals!) live on less than that a year (24% of white familes, 44% of African-American families, 43% of Hispanic families, 21% of Asian/Pacific Islander families).
The United States spends $69 billion a year to house two million prisoners. And yet the Second Chance Act (which helps ex-offenders with reentry and job placement) is looking at a budget slashed in half. It makes sense in the short time… we’re in a budget crisis, there is no money for social services and bleeding-heart assist-the-downtrodden programming. Except that a program like this is and should be about long term social and fiscal responsibility. The best outcome for everyone is to convert tax draining individuals into tax paying individuals, right? Less money to federal prisons, more money to federal coffers. Long term, the goal has to be reducing recidivism, and making ex-offenders feel like they are never going to be hired by an above-board enterprise is a quick way to push someone back towards seedy money-making schemes.
I worked on a documentary about a hot dog stand in Chicago that exclusively employs ex-offenders. The gimmick has a crass, capitalistic edge I could do without (it’s called Felony Franks…) but when interviewing the employees, I was struck by the overwhelming sense of gratitude they each expressed. These were not violent criminals, but mostly men who had been stupid teenagers and had emerged in their 30s with no skills or job prospects, and families to support. They spoke of friends who had relapsed because what the hell else are you supposed to do when you can’t pay your bills honestly? They spoke of leaving interviews and seeing their applications tossed in the trash through the plate glass window of the swinging door. They spoke of wanting to keep their heads down, get a paycheck, and get their lives together.
If you take the long view, reentry programs are a wise financial investment. But who takes the long view anymore when the budget hole 10 feet in front of us is just so damn intimidating?
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