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Prisoners Need COVID-19 Protection, Too

These days, we are all worried about those most susceptible to the ravages of the COVID-19 virus — not only the elderly and already sick but also those on the daily line of fire, like medical first responders and the countless essential workers still on the job.

But my inbox is filling up with letters beseeching Americans not to forget the incarcerated locked up in jails and prisons. These places are notoriously overcrowded and oftentimes operated in dilapidated and unsanitary conditions. There is no possibility for inmates to practice social distancing, to wash their hands at will or to possess a face mask. They are trapped in places that are notorious breeding grounds for germs.

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Is ‘Ban The Box’ Doing More Harm Than Good?

The United States leads the world in many categories that evoke pride and one that should not: We lock people up at a higher rate than any other country. We also have a lot of ex-offenders who have a hard time finding legitimate work. And an ex-offender with no job and no money is a crime waiting to happen.

But a few years back, we came up with a remedy for that problem: forbidding employers from asking applicants about their criminal records at the start of the hiring process. Only after candidates have been found qualified and offered interviews may the employer request this information.

Illinois and dozens of other states have enacted “ban the box” laws to improve the job prospects of correctional alumni. (The term refers to the square you check if you have a criminal record.) In December, President Donald Trump signed a measure imposing a similar rule on federal agencies and contractors. These laws are particularly relevant to black men, who have far higher rates of imprisonment than other men — and higher unemployment rates.

Even in today’s hot job market, African American men from age 20 to 34 are twice as likely to be out of work as their white peers. Ex-offenders are typically five times likelier to be unemployed than other people. Their neighbors would be safer if those ex-offenders could find steady jobs that would divert them from felonious activity.

Banning the box was a plausible reform. “This law will help ensure that people across Illinois get a fair shot to reach their full potential through their skills and qualifications, rather than past history,” said Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn when he signed the bill in 2014. The assumption was that if ex-offenders could clear the initial screen, employers would be more likely to excuse their past transgressions.

But all these changes in state laws didn’t account for a powerful and immutable law: the law of unintended consequences. The evidence about banning the box is piling up, and it’s not pretty. Instead of helping ex-offenders and black men, they have backfired on both.

Last year, Jennifer Doleac, an economics professor at Texas A&M who is affiliated with the University of Chicago Crime Lab, gave written testimony to a U.S. House committee on these laws. Her conclusions were sobering.

“Current evidence suggests that Ban the Box may not increase employment for people with criminal records, and might even reduce it,” she said. “Delaying information about job applicants’ criminal histories leads employers to statistically discriminate against groups that are more likely to have a recent conviction.” In a triumph of perversity, the people who were supposed to gain ended up worse off.

The latest evidence, assembled by University of California, Santa Barbara, economist Ryan Sherrard, confirms the detrimental consequences. After such a law is passed, his study found, African American men get fewer job callbacks — and white applicants get more. In places that “ban the box,” black ex-offenders are likelier to end up back in jail than before.

The reasons for these unwanted results are not hard to guess. When employers can’t find out whether applicants have criminal histories, they don’t assume the best about black men; they assume the worst.

An employer who would hire an unskilled young African American man who has never been in trouble, but not one with a rap sheet, can no longer tell one from the other until late in the process. The applicant with a spotless record has no way to distinguish himself from the onetime Gangster Disciple.

So hiring managers may decide to avoid the hassle by not considering many, or any, young black men. Under “ban the box” laws, employers seem to develop a greater preference for white candidates.

This effect works to the disadvantage of African Americans who haven’t been in trouble with the cops. It’s also no favor to those who have. Sherrard thinks the increase in recidivism may stem from the discouragement that arises when an ex-offender gets a callback and an interview, only to then be rejected because of his past. Raising false hopes is corrosive.

Doleac offers a few alternatives to make it easier for former inmates to get jobs, including education and training to improve their skills, authorizing judges to issue them certificates of work readiness and giving employers legal protection if such employees commit crimes on the job.

But the priority should be to repeal these laws, which have hindered the people they were meant to help. Sometimes the best way to do good is to stop doing harm.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

What Are Thousands Of Inmates Around The Country Protesting On Friday?

Friday, September 9th marks the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison riot New York state, and inmates and inmates rights groups across the country have planned demonstrations to highlight the deplorable conditions in prisons today.

On Thursday, according to the Miami Herald, more than 400 inmates “smashed their surroundings and barricaded themselves in four dormitories at Holmes Correctional Institution,” in Florida’s panhandle.

Florida’s prisons are notoriously understaffed and have faced several high-profile scandals in recent years of very serious abuse, including four years ago when Darren Rainey, 50, who was mentally ill, was locked in an extremely hot shower until he died from injuries related to his burns. That case turned out to be the tip of an enormous iceberg of sadistic violence against mentally ill prisoners across the state.

“In recent weeks, the department has quelled disturbances at Jackson Correctional, Gulf Correctional, Franklin Correctional and Oskaloosa CI. All of them are located in Region 1, in the Panhandle,” the Herald reports.

The Nation Wednesday predicted that “potentially thousands” of inmates in as many as 24 states could engage in strikes and protests to commemorate Attica and call attention to their own inhumane living conditions and pennies-on-the-dollar wages from multinational corporations like Microsoft and McDonalds, which both employ prison labor.

In May, hundreds of inmates across Alabama prisons went on strike for similar reasons, refusing to show up to jobs for which they are paid a maximum of 30 cents an hour.

“We will no longer voluntarily participate in this slave system where economics are placed over our humanity,” read a text message from inmate-organizer Melvin Ray, sent to fellow protestors, according to Vice. “All [that] is required is for industry workers, kitchen workers, and hall runners to sit down.”

The website prisonstrike.com lists events across the country scheduled for Friday, including hunger strikes, letter-writing initiatives, sit-ins, and other rallies and signs of solidarity.

A June investigation from Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer, who went undercover as a private prison guard in Louisiana for four months, revealed some of the conditions Friday’s protest will address: Inadequate staffing of prisons, which in turn cannot prevent violence between inmates; crowded living conditions; denial of medical care; and lack of oversight (or empathy, for that matter) from state governments seemingly obsessed with cutting costs at the expense of an otherwise nearly invisible, marginalized group.

The Black Lives Matter movement has also shone a spotlight on human rights violations in prisons, and on America’s carceral state as an extension of the racial hierarchies enforced by slavery and Jim Crow. The Movement for Black Lives, which released an extensive policy platform earlier this year, called for everything from ending the death penalty to re-investing in social services at the local level, in order to break the school to prison pipeline.

These issues have been gaining steam for decades, and the resurgence of activism around prisons this year — a response, perhaps, to the “tough on crime” attitude popularized by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and re-emphasized by Donald Trump — shows no signs of slowing: the Justice Department announced in August that it would end its use of private prisons. And President Obama doubled the total number of sentences shortened by his administration in August alone, to a total of 673 sentences, though that is still far from his one-time goal of 10,000.

Photo: itsgoingdown.org

Tom Cotton Thinks Iraq And Afghanistan Are Good Models For Law Enforcement

Despite the United States housing 25 percent of the world’s prison population, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton claimed Thursday that America had an “under-incarceration problem,” comparing our failure to jail more of its citizens to similar post-occupation failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I saw this in Baghdad. We’ve seen it again in Afghanistan,” said Cotton, an Army veteran of both wars, of the prospect of releasing convicted felons from prison early. “Security has to come first, whether you’re in a war zone or whether you’re in the United States of America.”

Given Cotton’s legislative history, the comments should come as no surprise. But how could a sitting senator reach such an outlandish conclusion?

“Take a look at the facts. First, the claim that too many criminals are being jailed, that there is over-incarceration, ignores an unfortunate fact: for the vast majority of crimes, a perpetrator is never identified or arrested, let alone prosecuted, convicted, and jailed,” Cotton said in his speech at The Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, according to his prepared remarks. “Law enforcement is able to arrest or identify a likely perpetrator for only 19 percent of property crimes and 47 percent of violent crimes. If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem.”

Cotton has been a consistent opponent of any sort of criminal justice reform. In January, he led a clique of Republican senators fighting against a bipartisan effort to reform mandatory minimum sentencing, citing unvalidated claims that releasing thousands of felons would result in a spike in crime.

“It would be very dangerous and unwise to proceed with the Senate Judiciary bill, which would lead to the release of thousands of violent felons,” said Cotton in an interview with Politico. “I think it’s no surprise that Republicans are divided on this question … [but] I don’t think any Republicans want legislation that is going to let out violent felons, which this bill would do.”

However, two new studies by the American Society of Criminology and a trio of criminology professors point to a different result. The studies, observing the consequences of California’s mass release of 27,500 felons since 2011, concluded that there has been no noticeable increase in violent crime rates across the state.

Meanwhile, California’s prison population has been reduced by 17 percent and has slowly reversed a troubling trend — some prisons were formerly up to 300 percent over capacity. The reduced prison population has saved the state nearly $500 million. On the national level, the “epidemic of incarceration costs us taxpayers $63.4 billion a year,” according to CBS News.

Asides from aspiring to “an act of mass forgiveness unprecedented in U.S. history,” the state was ordered to release prisoners from its overcrowded prisons by the United States Supreme Court, who ruled that the overcrowding of the state’s prisons constituted cruel and usual forms of punishment. California voters also voted in favor of Proposition 47, which reclassified a number of drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies, further reducing the burden on the state’s prison system.

The statistics used in Cotton’s speech were from a 2010 FBI report on crime, according to his office. The latest edition of complete numbers, from 2014, showed that the percentage of unpunished crimes has remained roughly consistent. Violent crimes rose by 0.5 percent between 2010 and 2014 while property crimes, the other metric Cotton used in his speech, dropped by 6.8 percent over the same period.

A study of crime rates between 1990 and 2013 by the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute associated with New York University, found that violent crime had dropped by over 50 percent and property crime by 43 percent. At the same time, 1.1 million Americans were jailed, nearly doubling the prison population.

Since 2000, the effect on the crime rate of increasing incarceration, in other words, adding individuals to the prison population, has been essentially zero. Increased incarceration accounted for approximately 6 percent of the reduction in property crime in the 1990s (this could vary statistically from 0 to 12 percent), and accounted for less than 1 percent of the decline in property crime this century,” said the report.

But Cotton remains ideologically committed to the preservation of the prison-industrial complex. Rather than acknowledge the changing conversation around mass incarceration, he cited his experiences in two war zones as proof that he knew better about how to handle Americans locked up for crimes punished less heavily in other countries.

Of course, the United States is not under military occupation (as much as some Republican voters would like to imagine it were), and the criminal justice system we need is entirely different from the experience of occupying countries opposed to being invaded. Using the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq as a framework for criminal justice policy here should worry the American public.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr