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Op-Ed: Many Americans in prison due to weak job market, tough hiring

By Calvin Wolf     Feb 9, 2015 in Crime
Why are so many Americans in prison? Many factors are to blame, but one thing that likely keeps offenders returning to lockup is the new, weaker economy that makes it tougher for one-time offenders to find decent jobs.
According to Slate, the United States prison population increase fivefold between 1980 and 2009, drastically outstripping the rate of population growth. PRB reports that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with roughly 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents. Of America's prisoners, the majority are young, poorly educated, minority males. While incarceration rates are down in the U.S., says The Washington Post, it has not decreased nearly as quickly as crime rates themselves. Ironically, while crime rates have fallen over the past thirty years, incarceration has soared.
What is the deal with America's strange love affair with incarceration?
Many factors are to blame. For one, politicians get more votes by being "tough on crime." The development of omnipresent, 24-hours-a-day media has allowed journalists to publicize any and all instances of criminals "getting off" or getting only a "slap on the wrist," effectively making many citizens feel that courts need to crack down hard on offenders. Politics and the media may have helped polarize America's views on criminal sentencing, with viewers wanting harsher sentences after being inundated with stories about heinous crimes. Tired of stories about judges and politicians who are allegedly "soft on crime," we want troublemakers locked up.
But, of all the factors that lead to more Americans spending time in prison, I believe that recidivism is the biggest. Simply put, it is hard to not be a convicted criminal once you have become a convicted criminal. You are almost "locked in" to a path that dooms you to future criminality. And, due to "three strikes laws," those who head down the path a third time are often locked up for life.
Critics, of course, will scoff and say that it is easy to not commit crimes, especially after an initial stint in prison should have shown one the error of his or her ways.
I believe that a weak job market, and tougher hiring requirements, coupled with increased competition for "good" jobs due to education and credential inflation, have effectively "squeezed out" most men and women with criminal records. How often do job applications require you to answer whether or not you have been convicted of a crime? After being released from prison, many convicts are simply unable to find employment, even if their crime was nonviolent.
With a weak job market due to automation, outsourcing, and education inflation, employers simply do not have to hire anyone with a criminal record. There are plenty of other applicants, and most have identical resumes and credentials. Why take the risk of hiring anyone who checked "yes" in regard to having been charged with a crime?
In addition to being branded a criminal, being in prison while young often prevents people from continuing their education, which is now a necessity for a middle-class job. If you are locked up at age 19 for two or three years, even for a nonviolent drug offense, are you likely to go on to earn a college degree? No. Colleges and universities will not want you on campus.
Squeezed out of the market for "good" jobs, or even bad jobs, ex-cons find themselves part of an economic underclass that increases the likelihood of returning to criminality. Without money or quality employment, many are forced to live lifestyles that bring them into regular contact with criminals. Some may get dragged back into criminality, and some may simply get mixed up in bad situations. How many ex-cons are re-imprisoned because everyone assumed they were guilty, even if they were just bystanders?
Who believes the word of a convict?
If we want to reduce recidivism, we must change the laws to allow nonviolent offenders to move on with their lives and have better chances of securing quality employment. Unfortunately, politicians who broach this subject are likely to be pilloried for being "soft on crime." 2016, anyone?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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