The Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC) estimates that each inmate costs taxpayers about $22,356 per year. The ADC has a budget of $367.5 million. That's about $245 per taxpayer. Unfortunately, a 2012 ADC study found a recidivism rate of 51.82 percent. Recidivism is when former inmates end up back in prison.
Putting people in prison costs dollars that could be used for something else. Last year 8,154 prisoners were released. If previous years' trends continue and about 4,000 people end up back in prison, and taxpayers pay $22,356 per prisoner per year, then the total cost is $89.4 million.
The direct cost to taxpayers is not the only cost of locking people up. We also lose productive members of society. We could have people working and making society better. That's how free exchange works. When you pay your barber to cut your hair, you're better off and he's better off. The ex-con who finds a job doesn't cost the state money for a prison cell, and he can support his family. That family needs less taxpayer assistance.
Many people return to prison because they can't find a good job. A Manhattan Institute report found that ex-offenders who quickly found employment were 20 percent less likely to re-offend.
One barrier is occupational licensing rules. Occupational licensing is a permission slip from the state to work in your chosen profession. Arkansas has a lot of these rules. The rules include fees, training, and experience which affect everyone, and some rules that are especially onerous to ex-offenders.
A 2017 study by the Institute for Justice says we are the third most burdensome state in the country. The average Arkansas license-holder in a low-to-moderate-income occupation had to spend 642 days to acquire it, as opposed to 160 days in neighboring Mississippi.
Financially, a former inmate is unlikely to be able to take 642 days off before starting a job.
A recent ACRE study shows that five-year recidivism rates fall by 3.5 percent for every 10 percent reduction in licensing burdens. According to a 2017 Institute for Justice 2017 report, Arkansas licenses about double (72) the amount of low-to-moderate-income occupations of Missouri (37) and Kansas (35). These occupations aren't physicians--they are low-to-moderate-income occupations.
If Arkansas de-licensed 50 percent of these occupations or reduced the requirements of these licenses to match our neighbors, our recidivism rate would be predicted to fall by 17.5 percent in five years. Reduce the recidivism rate by 17.5 percent and you only get 3,300 prisoners recidivating. Those 700 fewer prisoners a year could help us save over $15.5 million per year.
Many Arkansas licensing boards have rules for people with a criminal conviction. Some of those rules make sense. If your CPA was previously convicted for fraud and embezzlement, maybe she shouldn't be a CPA anymore. But it doesn't make sense to prevent someone from being a barber just because they were convicted of drug use when they were a teenager.
Many licensing restrictions aren't directed at people whose criminal history relates to their desired career. The restrictions are blanket bans affecting a wide range of professions.
For example, the state Plant Board can deny or refuse renewal of a license to anyone who does not have a record of moral or financial responsibility. Does this mean ex-offenders couldn't work at the nursery department of Lowe's? How does that help us as taxpayers? Does this make us safer?
Many Arkansas licenses also require a high school diploma, but many ex-offenders don't have one. The Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that about 68 percent of state offenders do not have a high school diploma. It is worth asking if the diploma actually impacts the safety of consumers. If the high school diploma doesn't directly impact consumer safety, let's remove that requirement.
What could we do to change this situation? Licensing boards need to explicitly state which crimes prevent a person from getting a license, and remove irrelevant convictions from the list of hurdles.
How about preventing licensing boards from using vague phrases like "moral turpitude" and "good character" to prevent a person from getting a license in their chosen profession? People with crimes directly related to their intended profession could still of course be prohibited.
There are many economic reasons to encourage ex-offenders to get a job. Working people propel the economy, while incarcerated people cost the taxpayers. And even economists can see the human side of this.
At some point fairness requires that we let people move on with their lives.
David Mitchell and Thomas Snyder are both associate professors of economics at the University of Central Arkansas. Dr. Mitchell is also the director of the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics. Their views do not represent those of UCA.
Editorial on 03/04/2019