Good conduct certificates can help cons go straight

Certifying the employability of promising ex-prisoners is such a sensible idea, it’s a wonder it’s not already in state law.

It will become law if a new bipartisan House bill gets through the Legislature this year. HB 1553 would let former criminals earn a “certificate of restoration of opportunity” by staying on the straight and narrow for a probationary period after their releases from prison or jail.

The CROP would appear on their records and would allow them to earn dozens of vocational licenses that can now be denied to people convicted of serious crimes. As things stand, a criminal history can prevent released inmates from becoming licensed chemical dependency counselors, barbers, engineers, real estate professionals and commercial fishermen. They can be excluded from more than 90 licensed trades and professions.

That’s precisely the kind of barrier that prevents prison “graduates” from finding jobs and staying out of trouble. Far too many of them — roughly 40 percent nationwide — wind up in jail again within a few years of release. It makes no sense to arbitrarily restrict convicts from earning honest money in trades they might have an aptitude for.

The legislation is thoughtful and cautious. Someone convicted of a serious, violent felony, for example, would have to stay on the right side of the law for three years after release before earning a certificate. A lesser felony would require two years. A serious misdemeanor, 18 months.

For the most part, a job applicant with a CROP couldn’t be barred from trades or from government employment solely on the basis of criminal history.

But there are important exceptions. Sex offenders are categorically excluded. Law enforcement agencies and the state bar association can refuse to hire any former convict. State agencies can ignore the certificate when hiring for jobs that offer access to children and people with disabilities.

This bill is part of a healthy trend toward integrating ex-felons into society once they’ve done their time.

States have figured out that releasing inmates with a $50 bill and the phone number of the police doesn’t work. To keep them from relapsing, most of them need help while they’re in prison, including mental health care, drug-abuse treatment, basic education, life coaching and vocational training.

On the outside, they need housing, human support and — crucially — a job.

It may be tempting to write off prison inmates as unworthy of any kind of extra assistance. But helping them go straight is a matter of self-interest.

Roughly 95 percent of the convicts in our prisons and jails will ultimately be set free. Throwing 40 percent of them back behind bars again is expensive. The greatest burden of recidivism is borne by innocent victims of theft or violence. Anything that might help a prisoner hold down a job and avoid future crimes is worth trying.