Instead of free health care for felons, Idaho should lift job restrictions

Wayne Hoffman Articles

Idaho, for a number of reasons, should not provide state-funded health coverage to former prison inmates, as the Otter administration is contemplating. But that’s not to say Idaho should do nothing to help inmates who have completed their prison sentences. Frankly, if we want convicted felons to quickly and successfully reintegrate into society — and we most definitely do — Job One is repealing state policies making it harder for former inmates to get on the right track.  

Department of Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told lawmakers Wednesday he’ll propose spending around $10.5 million to serve 5,600 inmates who have state health coverage while incarcerated but who may not have medical care when released.

The argument goes that these convicted felons have chronic health problems, perhaps mental health or drug and alcohol issues requiring ongoing care. This, Armstrong suggests, makes them perfect candidates for a program to take care of their needs.  

One might question the fairness of entitling ex-felons to participate in a government program in which others can’t take part. It is a curious policy that, for having been convicted of a crime, a former prison inmate should be granted the prize of free or low cost government-supplied health benefits upon completion of a prison sentence. Note that these benefits, theoretically, would be supplied by the people who were victims of the crime, through their taxes, and given to the people who committed the crime, a sort of a reverse restitution.

But the issue of ex-felons and their health care should at least spark a discussion about how to help people repair their broken lives. It’s fairly difficult to be productive in society after a felony conviction and spending any length of time behind bars, yet Idaho makes it even more difficult to get work afterward.

You can’t be a real estate agent for five years — not only from release but from the end of your parole. Even then, government regulators will decide if you should ever be granted permission to sell real estate. A felony is also sufficient justification under state law to keep people out of medical professions, including doctors, physician assistants, internships and residencies. Felons are excluded from social work and public works projects. They could also be denied registration as general building contractors and from obtaining licenses as dietitians, cosmetologists, barbers and accountants, among other occupations. These restrictions exist even if the felony conviction has little or no bearing on a person’s professional conduct.

Some may argue those convicted of a felony shouldn’t be allowed to hold certain jobs because their interaction with people could pose an inherent danger to society. But name a profession — whether a waiter or bellhop, auto mechanic or truck driver — in which one could not make the same argument. A blanket prohibition that keeps people from entering a profession just because of a felony conviction exacerbates the very problem Armstrong proposes to solve.

The existence of a felony is not enough reason to forever bar people from earning a living and becoming productive members of society. Everyone still needs a job, including former prison inmates. Instead of creating yet another program and a new entitlement just for post-release felons, the state should lift the arbitrary barriers that make it harder for ex-convicts reintegrate and become productive members of society.