Politics & Policy

A Felon’s Shot at Honest Work Shouldn’t Depend on His Proximity to Power

Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik leaves U.S. District Courthouse in White Plains, N.Y., after being indicted on federal tax fraud and corruption charges related to his personal finance and business dealings, November 9, 2007. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Bernie Kerik's pardon highlights a moral inversion of which our society is too often guilty.

The cartoon version of a conservative is a man walking past a panhandler and spitting, “Get a job!” That is intended to demonstrate the cruelty of the comfortable. But in reality, “Get a job!” very often is excellent advice, exactly the correct advice, advice that should be taken to heart.

Just ask Bernie Kerik.

Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner and interim interior minister of Iraq, was convicted of eight felony charges, mostly concerning an unreported loan (“loan”) he received from an Israeli businessman during his stint in Iraq. As the New York Times reports in a very interesting profile written by Dan Barry and J. David Goodman, it was difficult for Kerik to find work as a convicted felon. “These are the diminishments of your rights, and they last forever,” he told the Times. “You can do your time, you can do probation, you can be a model citizen for the rest of your life. That stuff stays with you.”

Happily for Kerik, he has a friend in the White House — a few of them, in fact: Not only President Trump but his longtime friend, patron, and sometime employer, Rudolph Giuliani. Kerik now has been pardoned by President Trump, and so things are looking up for him.

Less so for the people he spent all those years putting away.

There are many millions of American felons who do not have Kerik’s friends in high places, nor the social and political connections, curriculum vitae, and other mitigants that felons of the ruling class enjoy. Kerik found his felony convictions hampering his potential career as a high-earning international security consultant. More typical is the felon who finds that his criminal record prevents him from working as a barber or a personal trainer, a truck driver, a contractor, a physician’s assistant, or any number of other occupations that are effectively closed to felons in many states.

There are many factors that conspire to keep felons unemployed or poorly employed. Some of those, such as occupational-licensing regulations, could be reformed easily if there were the political will to do so, and some modest progress on licensing reform has in fact been made in many states. There is very little political upside to being seen as solicitous of the well-being of convicted criminals, and market incumbents in licensed occupations are rarely eager to expand the pool of potential competitors.

Bonding can be a limit, too. The Department of Labor provides some assistance on bonding through a program that provides supplemental insurance for certain high-risk hires. With unemployment low, employers have some incentive to be a little more liberal, but the reality is that it is far easier and less time-consuming (and, hence, generally more economical) to simply exclude felons from consideration. Employers, especially large ones, are not generally inclined to give every applicant individual attention, and as the job-search process becomes ever more automated and mediated, the almighty checklist (this degree, that credential, the absence of some particular disqualification) becomes ever more powerful.

Again, there is relatively little incentive to give any special consideration to felons. In general, the only real interest our political class has in the 20 million or so felons in our country is either farming their votes (D) or preventing that harvest (R). Taking meaningful steps to improve the quality of their lives is, at most, an afterthought. That is wrongheaded, not only for the obvious humane reasons — we owe something to our neighbors, even the ones who have done terrible things — but also for reasons of pure self-interest: It is not an infallible principle, but a man with something to lose is a man with incentives that can be used to his benefit and ours. There is an excellent case to be made for the lifelong political disenfranchisement of felons, but ensuring their lifelong poverty is cruel to them and an unnecessary danger to society at large.

Our political discourse is disfigured by a great deal of very stupid talk about “elitism,” but it is the case that our policymaking conversation takes place almost exclusively within the class of relatively affluent college-educated professionals and tends to reflect the interests, prejudices, and desires of that class — which is why we are having a national conversation about forgiving the student debt of Harvard graduates rather than forgiving the mortgage debt of poor people. (Neither of those is very good policy, but if we are to forgive debts, then why not forgive the debts of the poor rather than of those who are affluent or upwardly mobile?) Helping a former drug-dealer in Houston get a job as a barber is not an idea that resides very prominently in the Ivy League mind.

The people who would be most helped by making it easier for felons to work are not likely to be profiled in the New York Times or to come to the attention of the president of these United States thanks to their connections to his staff or his favorite cable-news network. There is a moral inversion at work there: Surely powerful and politically connected people — police commissioners, presidential advisers, etc. — should be held to a much more rigorous standard than should, say, fatherless teenagers raised in poverty with no social capital and no help from the dysfunctional institutions to which their lives have been entrusted. But that is not the way of things — and that is the crime of which we stand together convicted.

Here at the beginning of Lent, it is worth reminding ourselves that it isn’t the good people who need to be forgiven, nor the virtuous alone to whom we are attached and owe some duty.

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