Fortunately, there is a better way to make work programs like emergency snow-shoveling beneficial for all.
How can states do this?
A regular government jobs program for formerly incarcerated people could play a valuable role in maintaining public areas and infrastructure while assisting the transition from the prison to the community. Such a program would also provide a readily available workforce that could respond in moments of catastrophe.
Better yet, extending the program to provide real jobs to those who are about to be released would help them build a nest-egg to transition back into society. Pay all these workers the prevailing wage, and they will be able to afford rent and other necessities for successful reentry. And set up a payment plan so that former prisoners can pay back their debts, such as fines owed to the courts, once they are back up on their feet.
Such a payment plan for fees and fines would represent a big upgrade over the usual work-release programs. Financial obligations are usually deducted from the paycheck up front, and debt can follow formerly incarcerated people around for years. This erodes their incentive to work, makes crime more tempting, and absorbs money that might otherwise procure stable housing and other basic necessities.
People who have been incarcerated—mostly minority men with low-incomes and little schooling—continue to pay a price long after they have left prison. They often enter prison with close to nothing and return to society with little money to get established after incarceration.
Compounding the problem, they also face significant barriers to finding employment upon release.
According to the American Bar Association, people who serve their time and are released from prison in Massachusetts must contend with 789 state and 1,157 federal collateral consequences of criminal conviction. (In many other states, it's even worse; in Texas, for example, there are 1,544.) These include bans from public housing and suspended drivers’ licenses that prevent a normal life, and make it hard to seek jobs or raise children. While some of these restrictions may serve the public interest, others obstruct reintegration into society.
Many former prisoners can’t support families or afford housing, and can’t shell out enough money to pay the criminal justice system’s numerous fees and fines. In a vicious cycle, some of these men and women are sent back to jail when they fail to pay. Given all of this, it’s not surprising that almost 70 percent of those released will get re-arrested.
Worse yet, the consequences of incarceration extend far beyond the person imprisoned. The families and the children of those who go to prison also suffer from the negative financial effects of incarceration. This often leads to eviction of families from their homes. Matt Desmond of Harvard University calls these the “twin destructive forces” of incarceration and eviction. In fact, according research done by Christopher Wildeman of Cornell University and Sara Wakefield of Rutgers University, paternal incarceration more than doubles the risk of homelessness for African American children and increases the chances that these kids will be poor and commit crimes themselves.