Our View: Jobs for felons can help build community strength

May 9, 2018 10:54:37 AM



This week, the Lowndes Community Foundation and the CREATE Foundation released a report on the information it gathered from a community meeting focused on the future of the county in March.


The meeting drew about 200 people of all backgrounds to discuss the obstacles and opportunities facing our community.


Poverty, unemployment and a break-down of the family unit were identified among the issues that threaten to impede our community's progress.



Last week, Matthew Riley, statewide re-entry coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC), hosted an "82 Counties in 82 Days" program in Columbus. Riley is visiting each county in the state to encourage employers to consider hiring people with criminal records.


Riley was probably not aware of the Lowndes Community Foundation report, but his efforts are very much related to some of the fears expressed citizens in the community meeting.


Mississippi's incarceration rate is the fifth highest in the nation - for every 100,000 residents, there are 597 in jail or prison. Currently, there are more than 18,000 people in our state's jails and prisons.


Most of these offenders will be released. There is no reliable data for recidivism in the state - in Mississippi, the rate is only calculated for those former inmates who have been out of jail or prison for three years. Even so, MDOC's records show that 32 percent of those released from prison are back in prison within three years. That's one in three offenders. Chances are, that rate is even higher when those who have been out of prison longer than three years in factored in.


Mississippians go to prison at a high rate and return to prison at a high rate, too, a fact that not only have devastating impacts on the inmate and his family, but for the community as a whole. When we say poverty, unemployment and a break-down in the family unit are problems, we are often describing the symptoms of Mississippi's revolving door prison population.


One of the best tools to reverse this trend is finding employers who are willing to hire felons. According to his data, Riley said the felon who is able to find a job is three times less likely to go back to prison. Recently, the state legislature has been working on laws that will help felons become productive citizens, citizens who will support their families and break the cycle of poverty that often leads to desperation and crime.


While some employers do hire felons, for many others a felony conviction is an automatic dis-qualifier. So often it's an unnecessary risk.


A "second chance" can be a powerful motivator though. Felons often prove to be the hardest, most honest employees because they are determined to make good and prove themselves to their employers, their families, their community.


To judge a person strictly on the basis of that person's worst moment is to deny that opportunity to the detriment of the felon, his family and the community.


Hiring felons at a greater rate won't address all of the obstacles identified in the Lowndes Community Foundation's report, but data shows it can get at poverty, unemployment and family unity.


Sometimes, the only thing that stands between a felon and a lifetime of crime is a job.


We encourage employers to keep an open mind when a person with a felony applies for a job.


It goes beyond an act of kindness. It makes our community stronger, safer, better.