The nation needs to do much more about laws that marginalize former offenders – and often drive them back to jail – by denying them voting rights, parental rights, drivers licenses, and access to public housing, welfare and food stamps, even in cases where they have led blameless lives after prison, editorializes the New York Times. New Jersey – a state with a terrible record – could lead the way. Pending in the state legislature is a comprehensive package of reforms that would help ex-offenders rejoin society's mainstream and lower the chances, and costs, of recidivism.
About two-thirds of the people released from prison in New Jersey end up back inside within three years. Taxpayers spend about $48,000 per prison inmate per year; the state could reap significant savings from even a small decline in the return-to-prison rate. The proposed reforms seek to end practices under which former prisoners are denied employment because of minor convictions, even in the distant past, and crimes that have nothing at all to do with the work being sought. The bill would lift the state ban on food stamps and welfare benefits for people with felony drug convictions and would expand education and training opportunities for inmates. And it would end what the Times calls an odious practice under which the prison system earns a profit by overcharging poor families for the collect calls they receive from relatives inside a system. The cost sometimes forces families to choose between putting food on the table or letting a child speak to an incarcerated parent.