Residents of this capital city were recently informed of yet another debacle: 27 inmates at the Lorton Reformatory had been paid more than $200,000 in federal job-training funds. The news came from an investigation carried out by Rep. John Cavanaugh (D-Neb.) at the request of a constituent who was alarmed by a newspaper article, which reported that a Lorton inmate was obtaining public service employment through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). It was not just that most of those inmates were apparently long-term prisoners; Cavanaugh also decried the injustice of employing felons when so many lawabiding citizens are jobless. Just this week, the congressman introduced a bill that would bar incarcerated offenders from receiving job training or assistance from CETA.
In an era of high unemployment, ever-occurring recessions, and literally depression-like conditions in many urban neighborhoods, Cavanaugh's complaint sounds all too familiar. But had the congressman bothered to investigate the U.S. Department of Labor's ex-offender program, he might have been shocked to learn how little help offenders receive, even after their release from prison.
Recent testimony before Congress indicates that since 1976, DOL's special emphasis program for ex-offenders has been virtually dormant. Of the $11.5 million obligated for ex-offender programs in fiscal years 1977 through 1979, only $200,000 has been spent. The department's effort remains one of jawboning local governments to use some of their CETA monies for offenders and providing them with technical assistance manuals.
Much as a result, of the 460 state and local governments that qualify for CETA entitlement funds, it is estimated that only about 50 have embarked on some kid of program for ex-offenders. It should be noted that of a national civilian labor force of about 100 million persons, fully 25 million meet DOL's definition of an offender.
Why the concern for offenders?After all, haven't these people forfeited their opportunity for meaningful jobs? The fact of the matter is that unemployment is a leading contributor to street crime. Harvey Brenner, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, has noted that a 1 percent increase in unemployment results in 3,340 additional state prison admissions. A study that I recently completed discovered that even after considering sentencing patterns, trends in unemployment explained half of the year-to-year variation in the federal prison population.
In Washington, preliminary figures collected by the D.C. Bail Agency for 1978 indicate that perhaps as many as 60 percent of the adults arrested for felonies and serious misdemeanors were unemployed at the time of their arrest. The typical adult felony defendant tends to be a black male less than 26 years old, with more than a 50-50 chance of being unemployed. In more than three-fifths of the cases, he will have been arrested for crimes against property or commercial vice. And with respect to these defendants, the Institute for Law and Social Research has concluded that among a host of characteristics investigated, "Only employment status had a consistent effect . . . employed defendants were less likely to be held on bond, to fail to appear, and to be rearrested before trial if released." Needless to say, ex-offenders are also less likely to recidivate if employed.
Many of my colleagues suspect that institutions such as mental hospitals, welfare and the criminal justice system are really functioning to regulate poor people. So it is not too surprising to learn that it is open season on offenders. The death penalty is back, mandatory prison sentences are in vogue, the country is experiencing a boom in prison construction, and now, many will undoubtedly seize upon the latest CETA excess to justify the curtailment of programs for offenders. These offenders are already suffering. Sadly, the failure of our government to commit its resources to developing employment for its citizens will inevitably lead to the very high rate of street crime so often denounced by members of Congress.