One of the few television shows I follow is a science-fiction thriller called “The 4400.” The premise is simple: over a period of fifty-plus years, people have inexplicably disappeared, one by one. Then—suddenly—they are all returned. They have no memory of where they have been, and most face a world that is vastly changed; new social mores, new technologies, new national alliances. They are also different. They have been given new powers, and some don’t cope very well with the challenge those powers represent.
The returnees encounter fear and stigma. Relatives shun them; government agencies monitor them. These dynamics give the show its dramatic tension, as does the suspense of wondering how it will all turn out.
Coincidentally, 4400 is also the number of people who return to
Of the 650,000 incarcerated individuals who are released from penal institutions in
Depending on the length of time served, many will find the world a different place. Computers, cell-phones, ATMs, transportation—all the technology that morphs with dizzying speed—has changed the everyday environment. Family members have moved, married or remarried, died or written them off. Just as in the TV show, returnees’ movements are monitored, and they face persistent stigma and suspicion and a host of perverse incentives that seem designed to make re-offending easier than going straight.
The greatest problem these ex-felons will face is getting a job. Employment has been shown to significantly decrease recidivism, but for many reasons (some sound, some not), up to 70% of private-sector employers refuse to hire ex-felons, period—irrespective of the nature of the underlying crime or its relevance to the workplace in question.
No sane person wants child molesters working at a day-care center, but as a local judge recently noted, every ex-con isn’t Charles Manson. Some are truly bad actors, but many were kids who got into bad company and made serious mistakes. Others ran afoul of our draconian drug policies. It was appropriate that they pay for breaking the rules, but we all benefit by helping those who genuinely want a fresh start.
There are no simple answers, no pat policy prescriptions. Sometimes, hiring an ex-offender presents an unacceptable risk; other times, refusing to give someone a second chance is the greater risk.
Television shows can wrap up problems tidily in an hour. Real life is a lot harder.