Over the years, I have had numerous opportunities to present workshops on employment of ex-offenders. As I stand in front of the audience, I am always amazed at the shock on people’s faces when we discuss the sheer number of the population in prisons and jails, and the costs associated with incarceration. For example, did you know:
- Over 80 billion dollars is spent on Corrections each year - Bureau of Justice Statistics
- Seven million people are under correctional control, including individuals on probation and parole – U. S. Department of Justice
- The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population, but it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners – New York Times
- 1 out of 100 adults in the United States is in prison.
- Once released from prison, 2 out of 3 people are rearrested within a year. This is known as recidivism.
- Over the course of the last 20 years, the amount of money spent on prisons increased by 570%, while the money spent on education increased by only 33%.
- The cost per year to house an inmate varies from state to state. For example, in New York the cost is $47,421 per year, while in Pennsylvania, it is $42,339.
Needless to say, the above statistics clearly point out that we are facing enormous challenges. The costs associated with incarceration are staggering and the population of prisoners who will eventually be released and in need of jobs is becoming enormous.
In today’s workforce environment we use terms such as “Returning Citizens” or “Judicially Involved Individuals” instead of “Ex-Offenders” because of the negative connotation of the term. I contend it really doesn’t matter what they are called as long as we are working to find employment for this population. While I agree employment will not end recidivism and other barriers need to be addressed, it is clear having a job will lessen the chance that an individual will either commit another crime, or violate his/her probation or parole. One study showed 85% of federal offenders who had supervision revoked were unemployed at the time.
Sarah Lawrence, Director of Policy Analysis & Program Evaluation at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law states, “A long history of research confirms that, all else being equal, contact with the criminal justice system reduces one’s employment opportunities.” Conversely, “…employment of people recently released from incarceration is a proven strategy to reduce recidivism, achieve cost savings, reduce victimization and promote public safety.”
So if employment will assist in reducing recidivism, why isn’t more being done to place ex-offenders in jobs? The truth is, now that we know employment reduces recidivism and thus saves money on prison housing costs, government agencies are increasing funding for reentry programs. Both the Department of Justice and state departments of Corrections have funding available for reentry programs, with employment as one of the requirements.
The Department of Labor invested in The Reentry Employment Opportunities (REO) program for youth, young adults and adults who are ex-offenders. These pilots were designed to test the effectiveness of successful models and practices.
The new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) increases funding within adult education programs to serve ex-offenders and assist reentry into the workforce. Ex-offenders attempting to reenter the workforce will now be eligible for job training, including training administered through pay-for-performance contracts and transitional jobs which often assist individuals with poor work histories.
The definition of “offender” is more inclusive now under the new act, defining them as adults or juveniles who are or have been subject to any stage of the criminal justice process, or require assistance to address the issue of barriers to employment due to a record of arrest or conviction. The bottom line is, under the new law, every workforce board and One-Stop are required to serve ex-offenders.
While large companies may be less willing to hire ex-offenders, small to mid-size companies do not have as many restrictions, leading them to hire ex-offenders. With the new legislation, On-the-Job Training (OJT) funding is now available to employers as an added incentive to hire.
In the past, the expectation was that when an individual was released, it was his/her responsibility to find employment. Unfortunately, most had no idea how to complete a job search or explain a criminal record to a potential employer. Ex-offenders need programs to assist them in returning to the workforce. Without dedicated program staff and qualified job developers who know how to “sell” this population to the employer community, the majority of ex-offenders will fail and ultimately find themselves back in prison. Recently, one of our Ex-Offender programs enrolled ten participants who were sex offenders (commonly thought as of the most difficult to place) and was able to place five in unsubsidized employment. Three are still actively enrolled in the program. Only two exited the program without employment.
There are many varieties of Ex-Offender programs, but the most successful are run by those who have experience and share the goal of improving company performance. Doesn’t it make more sense to provide funding to viable and experienced programs to place individuals in unsubsidized employment who will pay taxes and child support, rather than continue to spend billions of dollars to incarcerate individuals?
For more information, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.