Let the formerly incarcerated work

Mississippi has a recidivism problem that’s jeopardizing public safety and burdening taxpayers. As of 2013, the Magnolia State had the nation’s third-highest incarceration rate per capita. What’s more, research suggests that around 95 percent of Mississippi’s enormous prison population will eventually be freed. And, unfortunately, around three quarters of those released will likely reoffend within five years.

There are policies, however, that can be implemented to help reverse this trend. Researchers have demonstrated that the formerly incarcerated are more likely to return to crime if they cannot find stable employment upon release. But many employers will not hire or even interview someone with a criminal record regardless of their crime, which often leads to long-term unemployment for these individuals. In fact, surveys suggest that 60-75 percent of the formerly incarcerated are jobless up to a year after their release.

Consequently, several states have enacted “second chance” legislation to better these individuals’ odds of landing decent jobs. “Second chance” measures aim to address the unemployment issue by enabling the formerly incarcerated to expunge their records of petty, first-time offenses. Mississippi should similarly strive to remove barriers to employment for these individuals.

Mississippi already has a program that allows certain first-time offenders to petition the court to seal their criminal records. However, these individuals aren’t permitted to have their records expunged under this program if they have been convicted of a misdemeanor traffic offense, such as a DUI. Considering that at least 1 percent of drivers are arrested for DUIs each year, an inordinate number of people are struggling to find gainful employment due to a one-time DUI offense.

DUIs and similar low-level traffic offenses ought to be treated the same as other misdemeanors for the purposes of the first-offender program. Mississippi could follow Texas’ lead in this regard by allowing first-time DUI offenders who registered a 0.14 blood alcohol content or lower to petition for expungement.

Individuals are also ineligible for first-time offender-status — and therefore cannot have their criminal records sealed — if they have been convicted of specific, nonviolent felonies, including many drug crimes. Nationally, 16 percent of inmates are imprisoned due to drug-related crimes. While it isn’t entirely clear how many of these are first-time-offenders, this statistic shows that a large number of individuals could benefit from a fresh start. Mississippi should therefore append more non-violent drug crimes to the list of expungement-eligible offenses.

Also, in many cases, Mississippians who were over 21 years old at the time of their offense are precluded from having their records sealed. Like juveniles, adults over the age of 21 make mistakes and deserve a second chance after their first violation. As a result, Mississippi ought to include more of those who were over 21 years old at the time of their crime into its first-time-offender program.

Even when offenders actually qualify to have their records sealed, they can’t request an expungement until five years after they have completed their sentence. By that point, many of the formerly incarcerated have already been dealing with criminal background-related joblessness. Like Texas, Mississippi ought to avail the first-time-offender program to individuals immediately upon their completion of court requirements to enable them to quickly obtain work.

Mississippi’s occupational licensing system also impacts formerly-incarcerated individuals’ ability to find employment. Like most states, Mississippi requires state licenses for myriad jobs. While most licenses don’t have strict criminal background requirements, many boards can reject applications based on prior convictions, thereby preventing people from working. Rather than allowing this, the state ought to permit boards to only consider convictions directly related to their industry and allow prospective employers to decide whether they wish to hire someone with a record.

Finally, each of these reforms should be applied retroactively in order to provide past offenders the same second chance as present ones.

Mississippi’s current law is clearly fraught with limitations and desperately needs updating. These proposed measures should not be misinterpreted as being soft on crime. Rather, they are about giving first-time offenders an opportunity to become productive citizens after they’ve been prosecuted and punished for their crimes. These reforms are simply smart public policies. They can decrease the number of formerly-incarcerated people whom Mississippians financially support through various entitlement programs. Further, these reforms would reduce recidivism rates, benefiting the general public with a safer society and reduced tax burden.

Work gives people purpose and contributes to a stronger economy and civil society.

A prospering Mississippi requires putting as many individuals to work as possible. Let’s give the formerly incarcerated the chance to become employed, productive members of society.

This column appeared in the Clarion Ledger on June 24, 2018.


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