THE welfare reform of the '90s was the most important so cial-policy change in the United States in recent decades. But it was, in a key way, narrow: It focused on women - that is, on getting welfare mothers into the workforce. But now a successor to "welfare-to-work" is emerging - a reform mainly for men. Call it prison-to-work.
The frontline can be found in cities like Newark. Reforming Mayor Cory Booker understands that he won't win his battle against crime unless he can find ways to help the thousands of ex-cons on the city's streets - and the many more to come - get jobs and keep them.
Nationwide, the challenge is huge: Some 700,000 ex-offenders a year return to their communities. If the trend isn't changed, some two-thirds will wind up back behind bars - meaning lots of new crimes committed.
Those grim numbers reflect the failure of past efforts to steer the newly released away from their old habits. Deborah Daniels, a former US assistant attorney general, explains: "Historically, people were to meet with their parole officer, sign up for job training and eventually look for a job." And that was it.
The results are deadly. In Newark, some 77 percent of violent crimes are committed by those with prior criminal records. Each year, 1,400 fresh parolees return to the city and surrounding county - a new potential crime wave in a city whose revival is being held back by murder and mayhem.
Booker (who'll speak on the topic to the Manhattan Institute on Thursday) wants a new approach for ex-cons. He's said: "We have to create strong pathways whereby many people who are coming out of incarceration can move to meaningful employment."
The mayor, 38, is a thoughtful post-ideological liberal (he's endorsed school vouchers, for instance). He often walks Newark's streets at night and talks with those he meets on corners - and says the first request he always gets is for a job.
So Newark isn't emphasizing job training and the like. Instead, the push is for "rapid attachment to work": getting each ex-offender into a job - any job - before he gets into trouble.
The city has set up a system to link the courts and parole system directly, "Opportunity Reconnect," a job-placement operation housed at Essex County Community College (conveniently, across the street from the county courthouse).
Booker is pushing the job-placement programs he inherited to start paying special attention to ex-cons - and he's brought in the private job-place- ment firm America Works under a contract that calls for payment only when ex-offenders go to work.
This is no easy task - but neither is it hopeless. Newark does have good jobs where a prison record isn't a barrier to entry - especially in the warehouse district (near the city's huge port) but also in hotels, department stores, even gas stations and convenience stores.
And despite some setbacks, the early Newark returns hold promise. In just over two months, 186 probationers have come in for classes (quick instruction on how to interview, for instance) at America Works - with 38 now at work and 98 sent out for interviews. Some are already learning new skills - such as the five becoming certified forklift operators for those warehouse jobs.
There's good reason to believe that "prison-to-work" is a winning approach. Ready4Work, a three-year federal demonstration project (now ended), served more than 4,000 ex-offenders, assigning them mentors, following their individual progress - and placing them in jobs. It lowered recidivism rates almost 50 percent.
Booker also hopes to reunite ex-offenders with their families - children and the mothers of those children, many in the ranks of current or former welfare moms.
Successful "re-entry" could mean that child-support payments will be made and that kids raised by single mothers might get to know their fathers. With private philanthropic support, Newark has established a system of "family success centers" to help such efforts.
Let's hope Newark, having launched these programs, helps track their success (and perhaps improve them) by keeping close tabs on how many ex-offenders get and keep jobs, how many return to prison, how many commit new violent crimes - and how many start paying child support and doing their duties as parents.
Such measures will tell us if Booker is truly blazing a trail for the future.
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/05202008/postopinion/opedcolumnists/prison_to_work_111607.htm