Ant-Man: A hero for criminal justice reform?
But despite its lighthearted approach, the film raised serious issues about prisoner re-entry and criminal justice reform (warning: some very mild spoilers follow). At the beginning of the film, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is released from prison after serving a term for burglarizing a company that had stolen money from its customers. Talking with a friend about his plans, Lang says, reasonably enough, that he will need to find a job. The friend points out that this might be difficult, as “a lot of employers don’t hire ex-cons.” “I have a master’s degree in mechanical engineering,” Lang replies, “I’ll be fine.”
The scene then cuts to Lang working the register at a Baskin Robbins. Even this turns out to be short-lived, as Lang is fired when his manager finds out about his criminal record (“Baskin Robbins always finds out.”) Faced with a lack of job options, Lang is tempted to return to a life of crime… before ultimately becoming a superhero who can change size and talks to ants.
That last part is not realistic, obviously. But the rest is sadly typical. Around 650,000 offenders are released from prison each year. Whether they can find adequate housing and employment are major factors for whether they will reoffend. Yet some employers are reluctant to hire ex-offenders, particularly if there are other non-offender applicants for the same position.
In response, a number of activists have been pushing to ban employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history, at least during the early stages of the hiring process. While well-intentioned, placing restrictions on employers is not the best way to deal with this problem. Flexible labor markets have been a major boon to the U.S. economy, helping to keep unemployment lower than it otherwise would have been. And there are some cases, such as crimes of violence, where we would want employers to know that a potential employee has committed a given crime.
Instead, states should focus on limiting their own role in exacerbating the problem.
In some cases, employers that want to hire ex-offenders are prohibited from doing so by state occupational licensing rules. In Illinois, more than 100 occupational licenses either can or must be denied to anyone with a criminal record. In Texas, recent reforms allow ex-offenders to obtain provisional licenses in certain cases.
Employer reluctance to hire ex-offenders also stems from a fear of lawsuits should something go wrong. States could also encourage employers to hire ex-offenders by passing tort reform, limiting their liability for negligent hiring cases.
Finally, we need to be more culturally accepting of second chances for those who have paid their debt to society. Nonprofits like the Prison Entrepreneurship Program pairs offenders with businesspeople to provide advice on finding work or starting businesses. And some businesses even give preference to ex-offenders in employment.
Most ex-offenders aren’t going to save the world from the machinations of HYDRA, but they do have the potential to be positive contributors to society. Regulations that cut off options for offenders’ reintegration back into society not only hurt ex-offenders, but the rest of us too.