Back when the economy was flush, President Bush (yes, that President Bush) started the “prisoner re-entry” ball rolling with $330 million dollars in federal funding to go for housing, drug rehab, jobs, and various therapies for ex-cons.  But now that we are a year into record unemployment for non-ex-cons, should the federal government still be offering tax breaks as a reward for hiring people with criminal records?

With one in ten people (probably more) unemployed, should committing a crime give people a leg up over other job applicants?

Consider one state with a (relatively) good financial outlook, Kansas.  24,000 people are on the unemployment roll in Kansas: the unemployment rate, around 6%, is far better than in many other places.  But the state has also lost 60,000 jobs since last November.  Nevertheless, taxpayers in Kansas seeking work are still subsidizing tax breaks for businesses who choose ex-cons over law-abiding job seekers.

Amazingly, the federal program offering tax breaks for hiring offenders even provides employers with “free insurance to protect them against losses including by theft, forgery or embezzlement.”  You know, for when the rehabilitation doesn’t take.

I’m all for offering offenders the chance to clean up in prison: who wouldn’t be?  But A.A. and N.A. programs cost nothing to run or attend, in or out of jail.  There also seems to be no shortage of naive (often religious) volunteers eager to teach offenders how to dress right for a job interview.

But the minute there’s grant money involved, expect wrap-around freebies for “clients” and zero accountability regarding whether a single dime spent does any good at all.  Here is a description of some of Kansas’ federal tax-funded re-entry expenditures, from a March 2009 article in U.S.A. Today:

In a hushed conference room overlooking the town’s main drag, eight convicted felons, including an aspiring amateur fighter, brandish bright Crayola markers.  Their goal is to match their personalities to one of four colors. Tim Witte, 27, on probation for evading arrest, eyes the task as if sizing up a fellow middle-weight on Kansas’ gritty cage-fighting circuit. Witte and two drug offenders settle on orange.  The color, indicative of a restless, risk-taking personality, is the hue of choice for most offenders, says Michelle Stephenson, the corrections officer leading the unusual exercise. . . Probation officers now help offenders find work, health care, housing, counseling, transportation and child care.  During the past several months, for example, the office spent $110 to cover an offender’s utility payments; $500 for a rent payment; $600 for six bikes the office loans to get to job interviews; $77 for a YMCA membership to help an offender improve his physical condition and $320 for eight anger-management counseling sessions.

The coloring class, gym memberships, et. al. are part of a gamble the state is taking with violent felons.  In an effort to cut costs, ex-cons are assigned to community-based “behavior modification” classes rather than being returned to prison for parole violations.  So that guy breaking into your garage might just get sent to art class, instead of back to prison.

Gee, who needs an anger management class now?

Does any of this busywork actually rehabilitate criminals? Or are the few successes held forth for the press just the people who would have gotten their act together anyway?  Even if the overseers of these programs weren’t utterly unreliable reporters, thanks to their nearly universal anti-incarceration ethos, there’s really no way to know.

For when states simultaneously set up crayola workshops for felons and instruct parole officers to send fewer violators back to prison and send the word down to prosecutors that more cases should be pleaded away, there are a million ways to make the results look good.  With layers of politicians and government workers and non-profits, there’s always somebody willing to point at the crayon box and declare (for a fee, of course) that the patient has been cured.

Well, except for this guy.  According to Kansas offender records, he absconded some time after U.S.A. Today introduced us to him in his coloring class.

prisoneconomyx

Not in Kansas anymore?