Bill DeWeese, the colorful, loquacious and gregarious state representative who represented Greene County and parts of Washington County for over three decades in Harrisburg and was House speaker for a few years in the 1990s, could walk out of a state prison in Retreat as early as Friday, a little less than two years after being convicted of using public money for political purposes.
To the best of our knowledge, the 63-year-old has been mum regarding his plans after he regains his freedom, but we’re guessing he’ll land gracefully on his feet. Just last month, another former House speaker, John Perzel, announced on the eve of his release from prison on similar public corruption charges that he already had a marketing job lined up with a friend’s construction company.
“I’ll be fine,” Perzel told PennLive.com. “I’ll be successful.”
However, other convicted felons, who lack the connections of once-powerful Pennsylvania politicians, can’t be as confident that they’ll set the world ablaze once they have served their time. More than five years after the Great Recession, all of the jobs that were lost in the meltdown of 2008-09 have not been replaced, and workers with unblemished records and considerable experience have been idled for months at a time, or have simply dropped out of the workforce. With more applicants than there are open positions, most employers don’t need to turn to those fresh from a stretch in the hoosegow to fill their openings.
Combine this with transportation and housing issues, and the typical felon will have a much steeper mountain to climb rebuilding their lives than either Perzel or DeWeese.
Why should we care? They’re criminals and they should abide with the consequences of their mistakes. There’s some truth in that. But if convicted felons can acquire skills and be integrated back into the workforce, they are less likely to end up re-offending and costing taxpayers yet more money. A study in 2008, before the Great Recession reached its depths, found that only 45 percent of convicted felons found jobs within eight months of being released. It’s a good bet that number has not improved in the half-decade since. But there are efforts being made to make convicted felons more employable, and those endeavors should be commended and emulated elsewhere.
Earlier this month, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on how the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh has been taking an active role in training felons after its founder, Steve Shelton, realized the number of able-bodied men who were languishing on the employment sidelines.
“I know contractors are looking for good guys and we have guys that are just sitting in jails and a 70 percent recidivism rate,” Shelton said. “If we can spend $50,000 or $60,000 a year to keep a guy in jail, why can’t we spend $5,000 or $6,000 a year to teach a guy a trade?”
That’s a good question. There’s probably no better way to stop a former inmate from ending up back in a cell than their gaining resources to make their own way in the world, securing the dignity and sense of well-being that comes with work and the knowledge they have useful skills.
They would be better off in the long run, and so would the rest of us.