Pennsylvania, like many states across the country, is looking to ease persistent budget woes by reducing the state prison population.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is one example of Pennsylvania’s efforts. The Department of Corrections looks to save money by improving on institutional inefficiencies and creating incentives for local counties to find alternatives to state incarceration. In turn, some of the savings would be distributed to state parole, county probation and local police to improve services — a laudable goal.

There is another way to lower prison costs, reduce victimization and generate tax revenue: remove barriers to employment for previously incarcerated offenders.

An offender facing reintegration into the community must deal with many obstacles. Finding employment may be the most difficult obstacle and yet may be the most important component of success. Offenders returning home from prison often identify employment as the most important factor that helped them stay crime-free, according to the National Re-entry Resource Center.

The unemployment rate of formerly incarcerated offenders one year after release may be as high as 60 percent, according to Joan Petersilia in When Prisoners Come Home, and there is an increasing reluctance among employers to hire people with criminal histories.

Further, studies show that inmates re-entering communities are most vulnerable to failure in the early stages after release from jail or prison. Offenders who do not reintegrate successfully into society often do it early; within three years of release, four out of 10 prisoners will have committed new crimes or violated the terms of their release and will be reincarcerated, according to the Pew Center on the States.

Formerly incarcerated men earn approximately 40 percent less per year than those who have never been incarcerated. Unfortunately, many offenders are ill-equipped to break the cycle of reincarceration. They lack the education and workforce skills needed to succeed in the labor market and the problem-solving skills needed to address the challenges of re-entry, according to Doris Layton MacKenzie in What Works in Corrections.

MacKenzie recently wrote that a growing body of evidence shows that providing offenders with education and training increases their employment opportunities, addresses their cognitive deficits and helps reduce their likelihood of recidivating.

There are certainly relevant concerns for employers that are seeking to fill 
vacancies in their workforces.

How does an employer know when it’s alright to disregard a criminal record? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are looking for the answer. Professors Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura believe their research provides criminal justice practitioners with a scientific method for estimating how long is long enough for someone with a prior record to remain arrest-free before being considered “redeemed” by a prospective employer.

Their research found, in part, that an 18-year-old convicted of robbery is no more likely to commit another crime than the rest of the population once 7.7 years have passed crime-free since the offense.

The research is promising for former offenders who have remained crime-free, but it takes legislative action to remove the barriers to employment. Those most burdened by criminal records are those with felony convictions. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania have been reluctant to deal with even minor criminal convictions other than summary offenses.

For years, Pennsylvania has prohibited private employers from considering conviction records that “do not relate to the applicant’s suitability for employment,” per 18 Pa.C.S. §9125. Employers must provide written notification if denial was based on the applicant’s criminal history.

Pennsylvania’s neighbor to the east, New Jersey, allows certain nonviolent felony convictions to be expunged 10 years after release from confinement. For misdemeanors, the waiting period is five years.

Pennsylvania’s neighbor to the west, Ohio, has a new law seeking to make the employment process easier for nonviolent offenders released from prison. The legislation breaks down employment barriers that commonly get in the way of ex-offenders trying to adjust to life on the street.

Even some traditional “law and order” states like Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina recognized that old, minor offenses can plague job-seekers for years and took positive steps to allow the expungement of a number of low-level offenses.

In 2008, Pennsylvania extended its expungement law to allow those convicted of summary offenses to petition the courts to have their records cleared after five years without an arrest.

According to The Allentown Morning Call, nationwide, 37 states and the District of Columbia allow expungements for at least some misdemeanor offenses. Twenty-six states allow some felonies to be expunged.

In Pennsylvania, expanding expungement beyond summary offenses has failed during the last two legislative sessions. Two sessions ago, legislation to expunge misdemeanors passed the House of Representatives. The Senate Judiciary Committee reported the bill out from committee but the bill sat without a vote for the remainder of the session.

During the last legislative session, Senator Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, introduced SB 1220. The proposed legislation provided that an offender may seek to remove a conviction if it was a misdemeanor of the third degree and the offender has been free of arrest for seven years or a misdemeanor of the second degree if the offender has been free of arrest for 10 years following release from confinement or community supervision.

The bill had bipartisan support. According to The Morning Call, Solobay believes the legislation stalled because of opposition from Governor Tom Corbett.

Pennsylvania needs to pursue meaningful reform that lifts employment barriers for former offenders. Such an effort will lower prison costs — fewer offenders will be returned to prison; prevent additional victimization — offenders gainfully employed are less likely to reoffend; and generate tax revenue — employed former offenders pay taxes. That is a smart approach to lowering prison costs. •

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George. He is the former district attorney for Lawrence County and former member of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. You can read his blog, The Cautionary Instruction, every Friday at www.post-gazette.com. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.