What Welfare Reform Teaches Us About Reforming Parole

peter_cove.jpgPeter Cove
Founder, America Works

Originally Posted On:  The California Progressive Report 4/6/09

Link: http://www.californiaprogressreport.com/2009/04/what_welfare_re.html

Does anyone dispute the fact that welfare caseloads fell by 60% over the last 12 years in large part because work requirements became mandatory?

Prior to the reform of welfare by Congress in 1996, entitlement to cash assistance was a right for single mothers and little was expected in return. With the passage of the welfare reform bill, equal participation in the workforce from the recipients of welfare was required. Work was introduced as the reciprocal responsibility for welfare benefits. This established a quid pro quo in welfare, which changed the game from a handout to a workout.

This change resulted in many unintended consequences having residual benefits for the children, the mothers, and the private sector. Studies have shown that the benefits far outnumbered the costs for the children whose mothers went to work. Furthermore, when working, mothers also suffered from less mental illness and depression with their self-esteem, as well, as their family income increasing.

The private sector experienced an influx of previously discarded workers willing to take vacant jobs and move up in companies that were ready to accept them. More importantly, previously dependent receivers of government assistance were now paying taxes.

As the requirement for work reshaped welfare, might it do the same for parole? The question is this: might parole be improved by mandating the same type of work requirements introduced into welfare? Few would argue that parole works well. With over 70% of prisoners released returning to prison in 3 years in California, there clearly is something amiss in the parole system. Revamping parole from its losing game, to one where work becomes the central policy for re-entry may well be the ticket to successful reform.

Such a proposal was made last year in a groundbreaking paper for The Brookings Institute written By Professor Larry Mead of NYU. In it, Professor Mead argues that to reduce recidivism the correction system must become more accountable for how its turns out its clients. The notion is for parole to become work centered, with participation in the workforce determinate of continued freedom for the parolee. Surprisingly, of those returning to prison, 67% are due to technical violations of their parole. A technical violation means, they have in some way run afoul of their parole requirements. They might have gone to another state for a day. They might have forgotten or purposely missed a meeting with their parole officer. Nonetheless, these people have not committed any new crimes. In other words, they have in the plain interpretation of the law violated their parole conditions. But, only in rare instances have they become enough of a risk to the public to warrant re-incarceration.

By requiring parolees enter the workforce as a condition of freedom the role of the parole officer would change as did that of the case manager in welfare. Prior to welfare reform, the case manager was primarily responsible for enforcing rules as to who was eligible for grants. Often, they would encourage welfare mothers to have more children in order to increase their take-home income. Sadly, case managers seldom encouraged welfare recipients to work. Their responsibilities were, in a way prior to welfare reform, no different from those of parole officers today.

They both monitor conformity to regulations. But what if parole officers saw their job as helping returning felons enter the workforce? What if showing up to work was the measure of good compliance rather than arriving at the parole officer’s office on time; a time, by the way, that almost always conflicts with keeping a full time job?

Studies have shown, the therapeutic value of work, as well as, the income earned is enormous. By reforming parolee, there would be re-incarceration for criminal offenses, but technical violations would be reduced to work violations. The benefit to society would be a precipitously drop in recidivism. In an article to come, I will look at the connection between the drop in recidivism to employment.

Peter Cove is the Founder of America Works, a national company securing work for offenders, veterans and other hard to place workers.

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