"Americans from across the political spectrum can unite around prison reform legislation that will reduce crime while giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption," former President Donald Trump said in November 2018. "So if something happens and they make a mistake, they get a second chance at life."
A month later, Trump signed the First Step Act—one of his signature pieces of legislation, which gave second chances to many people with criminal records. It was a good bill that every Republican in the House voted for, save two. However, now conservatives—including supporters of Trump's signature criminal justice reform bill—are claiming that it's wrong to hire former criminals.
"Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney has history of employing convicts," the New York Post wrote on September 3. In the story, we learn that Maloney has reportedly paid two people with criminal records: Theodore Bickley, who served six years after he was found with $900 in counterfeit cash, and Jonathan Alvarez, who served 12 years for manslaughter.
In an interview with the Post, First Step supporter Rep. Elise Stefanik (R–N.Y.) lambasted Maloney's "personnel choices of hard-core criminals." A few weeks prior, she tweeted that "New Yorkers want LAW & ORDER." Did she not read the bill she supported? Or does she simply not understand the concept of second chances?
Let's consider Alvarez's case. When he was a child, his father was deported to the Dominican Republic after he was caught drug trafficking. Alvarez started selling drugs himself at 13; at 17, he defended a friend in a street fight against a 22-year-old, who died from his injuries. Alvarez left prison at 30 and then worked for Maloney as a congressional fellow from January 2019 to July 2019. He made all of $12,750.
"[Alvarez] graduated from the Bard Prison Initiative, which helps violent cons reenter society," notes the Post. "Maloney has long been a champion of the program and spoke at their 2014 commencement ceremony." The reader is supposed to be scandalized by this.
Alvarez has turned his life around after a very rocky upbringing. What jobs do Stefanik and the Post believe he is worthy to hold?
Conservatives have taken the same approach in the Pennsylvania Senate race. "Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman hired two convicted murderers to work for his campaign," Fox News wrote earlier this month, "and his Republican opponent in the state's November election, Mehmet Oz, claims it shows he is soft on crime."
The piece goes on to detail the case of Dennis and Lee Horton, brothers who were convicted of second-degree murder and served 27 years in prison after police pulled them over one evening in 1993 and found a friend of theirs, Robert Leaf—who had just taken part in a deadly robbery—in their backseat with a rifle.
Buried in the piece is that both brothers were recommended unanimously for clemency by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons after maintaining their innocence for the nearly three decades they spent behind bars. Though the brothers admit to giving Leaf a ride that night, they say they were unaware of and uninvolved with the crime. Before their trials, they were offered plea deals ranging from five to 10 years in prison; they declined, went to trial, and were sentenced to life in prison. Leaf was paroled in 2008.
It's a strange point for a publication or a politician to make. We should keep punishing two men, we're told, for crimes they potentially did not commit and for which they received clemency.
Do conservatives also feel that way about the men and women who received clemency from Trump?
The notion that people should be expelled from polite society after leaving prison might sound tempting to those who want revenge. But that pound of flesh was extracted by prison, and post-incarceration employment is one of our most effective ways to discourage recidivism. Fox lamented that "the two brothers have raked in nearly $50K" since they were hired last December. That's not much between two grown men who earned it through legal employment. What exactly does the Fox writer want them to do instead?
Ninety-five percent of state prisoners will be set free at some point. The question we have as a society is what we let them do with that freedom when they get it. If you support law and order, you should want all of them to succeed for the sake of that principle, not despite it.
This recent coverage is not an anomaly. The Post, for its part, has been beating this drum for a while. One of its preferred subjects is Dyjuan Tatro, who served 12 years in prison, got two degrees behind bars, and went on to get a job with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The House Democrats' campaign arm has hired an ex-gangster-turned-high-profile criminal justice advocate for a top leadership position," the Post wrote last year. Again, reader, you are supposed to be scandalized.
Tatro is, but for different reasons. "I have done everything they say that someone like me is supposed to do to redeem themselves," he told me in a phone interview, "but they're willing to undermine that, and to undermine public safety and individual accountability, in order to play partisan politics."
There's a difference between politics, which is performative, and policy, which is actionable. It's a distinction he very much understands as someone who has pushed to have Pell Grants—which subsidize education costs—restored for the incarcerated, so that more prisoners can access the same recidivism-reducing tools he did. "We could not have restored [education funding] to incarcerated people without Republican support," he says. "You have to remember that Donald Trump signed that bill. Donald Trump was the president who restored higher-education access to incarcerated people in this country."
That bill, not to be confused with the First Step Act, refers to the omnibus budget passed at the close of 2020, which reinstated those grants for the incarcerated after the notorious 1994 crime bill enshrined a ban that lasted 26 years. It was one of the last things Trump did in office. "They did that because it's good policy," says Tatro.
It is good policy. It's also mostly uncontroversial behind closed doors. But when the doors are open, some opt for politics, not policy. "You cannot say that we care about public safety, that we care about lowering recidivism, that we care about second chances or rehabilitation…and at the same time exclude formerly incarcerated people from gainful employment," says Tatro. "They're shooting themselves in the foot."