Most people who go to prison in Connecticut, even for a short time, will have a hard time rebuilding their lives. At best they will be considered damaged goods, necessarily inferior to job and housing applicants who have not been in prison. At worst they will be considered criminals still, since within a few years most former convicts are sent back to prison for one reason or another.
An ex-convict who can't obtain housing and a job soon upon his release is almost compelled to return to crime. So the solutions being advocated by leading liberals in the General Assembly are to conceal criminal records, at least for nonviolent offenses, and to forbid landlords from refusing to rent to former offenders solely on the basis of their criminal history.
But the problem with convicts returning to society goes far beyond the accessibility of criminal records. For most former offenders lack education and job skills and had terrible upbringings, and many suffer learning disabilities. This is why many turned to crime and especially drugs in the first place, and just as much as their criminal history, if not more so, their lack of job skills is why they are considered undesirable employees and tenants.
By contrast, anyone returning from prison after a drug conviction who nevertheless has some education and job skills -- say, an engineer, meat cutter, plumber, or computer programmer -- won't have nearly as much trouble finding a job and a home. Employers and landlords will be far more receptive with someone who has the skills to support himself by honest work.
Keeping employers and landlords ignorant of criminal records won't confer education and job skills on ex-cons. If they come out of prison no more employable than when they went in, enforcement of ignorance about their criminal records will do them little good. Even if they find an apartment, without a job paying enough to sustain it they may be back to crime and prison soon enough anyway.
So rather than demonstrate contempt for the public by enforcing ignorance of criminal records, state government should pursue several other policies with former offenders.
First, the state should repeal drug criminalization, which ensnares most young offenders and has proven futile anyway. Second, the length of criminal sentences should be tied to an offender's gaining education and job skills. And third, state government itself should provide basic jobs and rudimentary housing to former offenders as long as they can't get them on their own.
Of course the latter policy would cost some money, but then current practice -- to release prisoners without job skills and housing and watch haplessly as most go back to prison in a few years -- already is more expensive.
A REFERENDUM ON TOLLS?: Republicans suddenly have received a great opportunity to give meaning to the five special elections being held Tuesday to fill five vacant seats in the General Assembly, three in the Senate and two in the House. All the districts are so heavily Democratic that their occupants felt comfortable abandoning them soon after their re-election so they might accept appointment to executive positions by Governor Lamont.
That is, can the Republican candidates turn the elections into referendums on the governor's reversing his campaign position and endorsing general tolling on state highways?
Are even voters in Democratic districts upset enough by how fast the governor repudiated what he told them during the campaign?
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.