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Putting Ex-Cons to Work Helps Everybody

Mark Walker of that Sioux Falls paper looks at a Pew Charitable Trusts Stateline report that discusses what states are doing to help ex-offenders get back into the workforce. 70 million Americans have criminal records, which can make it hard for them to get a job. The report notes that seventeen states, including Minnesota, have prohibited employers from asking about criminal history on job applications. Minnesota’s “ban the box” law applies to public and private employers.

Senator Craig Tieszen, a former Rapid City police chief, says South Dakota should consider a “ban the box” law:

“These people should have an opportunity to re-enter the workforce,” Tieszen said. “Obviously, they won’t be automatically hired, but they deserve equal opportunity to re-enter the workforce.”

Tieszen, who recently advocated for legislation to restore ex-convicts’ voting rights, said the state could use a “ban the box” law [Mark Walker, “Should S.D. Ease the Path to a Job for Ex-Cons?that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.06.20].

Representative Reverend Steve Hickey says helping ex-cons get jobs is simple human decency:

Hickey assists ex-convicts through his church in Sioux Falls and also worked on the state’s criminal justice reform.

“We’re just locking people up and shaming them. … It’s a broken system, and South Dakota I think is a good place to experiment with change,” Hickey said. “I believe the best way to help them is to treat them as human beings” [Walker, 2015.06.20].

Pat Powers pops off with law-and-order machismo but not much serious thought of how we save 70 million Americans from permanent economic marginalization. Without evidence, Powers emotionally paints Tieszen and Hickey as felon-lovers and victim-haters:

If some of these guys spent as much time working to ensure crime victims were made whole, and criminals were held to full account for the damage they do to people’s lives, I might be more sympathetic.

But they don’t. They spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make the criminal whole, as opposed to the people whom they might have damaged along the way.

Until victims are restored, criminals should not expect to participate fully in society [Pat Powers, “Legislators Are Back Advocating for Criminals Instead of Victims,” Dakota War College, 2015.06.21].

Powers follows that post with a press release from Governor Daugaard touting his own pro-criminal tribal parole program:

As a part of the pilot program, a tribal wellness team meets regularly to provide support for the parolees in the program. The team includes individuals who work in a number of different areas including mental health, tribal law enforcement, drug and alcohol treatment, housing, and veteran’s affairs [Governor Dennis Daugaard, press release: “Update on the Tribal Pilot Parole Program,” Dakota War College, 2015.06.21].

Powers doesn’t mind the Governor making convicts whole with numerous forms of public assistance, but when a couple of legislators propose a minor reform to help convicts get jobs, Powers cries they are hurting victims.

Actually, in trying to make it easier for ex-cons to support themselves, Senator Tieszen and Rep. Rev. Hickey are talking about one of the best ways to make ex-cons, victims, and society as a whole better off:

For many companies, criminal background checks are a means to determine the safety and security risk a prospective or current employee poses on the job. Yet even the assumption that the existence of a criminal record accurately predicts negative work behavior is subject to some debate; one limited study questions whether the two are, in fact, empirically related. The irony is that employers’ attempts to safeguard the workplace are not only barring many people who pose little to no risk, but they also are compromising public safety. As studies have shown, providing individuals the opportunity for stable employment actually lowers crime recidivism rates and thus increases public safety.

Not only is it a matter of public safety to ensure that all workers have job opportunities, but it is also critical for the struggling economy. No healthy economy can sustain such a large and growing population of unemployable workers, especially in those communities already hard hit by joblessness. Indeed, the impact on the economy is staggering. The cost of corrections at each level of government has increased 660 percent from 1982 to 2006, consuming $68 billion a year, and the reduced output of goods and services of people with felonies and prison records is estimated at between $57 and $65 billion in losses [Michelle Natividad Rodriguez and Maurice Emsellem, “65 Million ‘Need Not Apply’: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment,” National Employment Law Project, March 2011, p. 3].

As Robert Reich says, locking millions of people out of the economy forever wastes human talent. Put ex-cons to work, and they boost themselves and the economy. That’s a surefire way to make everybody whole.


  1. mike from iowa 2015-06-23

    Charleston County Magistrate James B. Gosnell began Friday’s bond hearing for mass-murderer Dylann Roof by declaring that the killer’s family members were victims as well.

    If some of these guys spent as much time working to ensure crime victims were made whole, and criminals were held to full account for the damage they do to people’s lives, I might be more sympathetic.

    But they don’t. They spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make the criminal whole, as opposed to the people whom they might have damaged along the way.

    Pot Powers meet kettle Gosnell.

  2. Paul Seamans 2015-06-23

    It used to be you could tell an ex-con by seeing that he had prison tattoos. I guess that wouldn’t work so well today.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-06-23

    Funny, Paul! Maybe the Legislature will decide that we need a lower minimum wage for tattooed workers, since tattoos prove that workers use their money on frivolous things rather than on supporting a family….

  4. Rorschach 2015-06-23

    Sen. Tieszen isn’t afraid to take on the reactionaries in his party, and his background as a police chief makes it easier for him to withstand criticisms like those leveled on the other blog. Rep. Hickey’s position as a minister also provides some level of insulation from criticism. When you have that bully pulpit – use it. I think these two are using the bully pulpit to great effect.

  5. Dave 2015-06-23

    How does that old saying go? “Remember to put brain into gear before engaging mouth (or writing a blog post).” PP needs his transmission rebuilt.

  6. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-06-23

    Just to be clear, here is how “Ban the box” works:

    Employers cannot ask aspiring employees about their criminal history until the interview stage.

    BTW, it’s still legal to ask about criminal history in a rental application.

    (If none of that needed to be said, forgive me.)

  7. Roger Elgersma 2015-06-23

    There are places that ex cons can work. But for all employers to not know what they are dealing with is simply not safe for their present good workers. Some workers have a personality that is to easily intimidated. This type of person does not deserve to accidentally need to suddenly be faced with an ex con working next to them. Some employees in the past have suffered rape and do not need a rapist working next to them. There are some who get out of prison who are ready to work and behave themselves and some who are just looking for the next scam or crime to do. To have no background check is ridiculous. We have the same problem when Hispanic communities think they should self police themselves. That way we do not have a clue who we are hiring. A person with a bad past is far more likely to do a crime than one who has not done a crime. IF they are not trustworthy around money the employer should not naively put them behind the cash register. Knowing ones past is very important in the decision of what job they will get. If we want the mentally slow, psychologically weak and the ex con to all have jobs is a great idea, but they should not all be working next to each other. The employer absolutely needs to know who that person is.
    Actually it would be very good if employees could know the records of companies if they have done fraud or damaged the environment as well. Employees should not have to deal with a job that simply does not match their own value system. They do not need to have to quit a job just because they had no way of knowing what they were getting into. I know of very good people who have had to quit for honesty reasons and they get slandered by their previous dishonest employer when trying to get another job.

  8. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-06-23

    Roger, you make good points. I worked as a case manager for inmates within 6 months of release, and nearly all of them are “cons”, in all meanings of the word.

    I like the MN version that states the employer must wait until the interview stage to ask about a criminal past. The idea is that having a conviction cannot be used as an automatic rejection of an applicant. Revealing one’s criminality is done, but the applicant at least gets a chance to make her case.

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