Ex-prisoners face headwinds as job seekers, even when there are many openings

The US unemployment rate is near lowest levels not seen since the 1960s. A few months ago, there were roughly two vacancies for every unemployed person in the country. Many standard economic models suggest that almost everyone who wants a job has a job.

Yet the broad group of Americans with prison terms or arrests — a population that is disproportionately male and black — has remarkably high unemployment rates. Over 60 percent of those who leave prison are unemployed a year later, looking for work but not finding it.

That harsh reality has persisted even as the social upheaval following the killing of George Floyd in 2020 fueled a “second chance at employment”[ads1]; movement in corporate America aimed at hiring candidates with criminal records. And the gap exists even though unemployment for minority groups overall is close to record lows.

Many states have “ban the box” laws that prevent initial job applications from asking if candidates have a criminal history. But a prison record can block progress after interviews or background checks — especially for convictions more serious than nonviolent drug offenses, which have undergone a more sympathetic public reconsideration in recent years.

For economic policymakers, a persistent demand for labor combined with a persistent lack of work for many ex-prisoners poses a difficult conundrum: A wide range of citizens have re-entered society — after a quadrupling of the U.S. incarceration rate over 40 years — but the nation’s economic engine Not sure what to do with them.

“These are people trying to compete in the legal labor market,” said Shawn D. Bushway, an economist and criminologist at the RAND Corporation, who estimates that 64 percent of unemployed men have been arrested and 46 percent have been convicted. “You can’t say, ‘Well, these people are just lazy’ or ‘These people don’t really want to work.’

In a research paper, Mr. Bushway and his co-authors found that when ex-prisoners get a job, “they earn significantly less than their counterparts without a criminal record, making the middle class increasingly less accessible to unemployed men” in this cohort. .

One challenge is a long-held assumption that people with criminal records are more likely to be difficult, unreliable or unreliable employees. DeAnna Hoskins, the president of JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit group focused on reducing incarceration, said she challenged that concern as overblown. Also, she said, locking ex-prisoners out of the labor market could promote “survival crime” by people looking to make ends meet.

One way proven to stop recidivism – a return to criminal behavior – is to increase investment in prison education so that ex-prisoners re-enter society with more demonstrable, valuable skills.

According to a RAND analysis, incarcerated people who participate in education programs are 43 percent less likely than others to be re-incarcerated, and for every dollar spent on prison education, the government saves $4 to $5 in prison costs.

Last year, a chapter of the White House Council of Economic Advisers’ economic report of the president was dedicated in part to “substantial evidence of workforce discrimination against formerly incarcerated people.” The Biden administration announced that the Justice and Labor Departments would spend $145 million over two years for job training and reentry services for federal prisoners.

Mr. Bushway pointed to another approach: broader government-sponsored job programs for those leaving prison. Such programs existed more widely at the federal level before the tough-on-crime movement of the 1980s, providing incentives such as wage subsidies for businesses that hire workers with criminal records.

But Mr. Bushway and Ms. Hoskins said any impact changes would likely need support from and coordination with states and cities. Some small but ambitious efforts are underway.

In May 2016, Jabarre Jarrett of Ripley, Tenn., a small town about 15 miles east of the Mississippi River, got a call from his sister. She told Mr Jarrett, then 27, that her boyfriend had assaulted her. Frustrated and angry, Mr. Jarrett drove to see her. A verbal argument with the man, who was armed, turned physical and Mr. Jarrett, also armed, fatally shot him.

Mr. Jarrett pleaded guilty to one count of murder and was given a 12-year sentence. Released in 2021 after his term was reduced for good behavior, he found himself still paying for his crime, quite literally.

Housing was hard to come by. Mr. Jarrett owed child support. And despite a vibrant job market, he struggled to make ends meet, finding employers hesitant to offer him full-time work that paid enough to cover his bills.

“One night somebody from my past called me, man, and they offered me an opportunity to get back in the game,” he said — with options like “running a scam, selling drugs, anything.”

One reason he resisted, Jarrett said, was his decision a few weeks earlier to enroll in a program called Persevere out of curiosity.

Persevere, a nonprofit group funded by federal grants, private donations and state partnerships, focuses on stopping recidivism in part through technical job training, and offers software development courses to those recently released from prison and those within three years of release. It combines these efforts with “comprehensive services” — including mentorship, transportation, temporary housing and access to basic necessities — to address financial and mental health needs.

For Mr. Jarrett, this network helped solidify a life change. When he got off the phone with the old friend, he called a mental health counselor at Persevere.

“I said, ‘Man, is this real?'” he recalled. “I told him, ‘I’ve got child support, I just lost another job, and someone offered me an opportunity to make money right now, and I’d love to turn it down, but I have no hope.'” The counselor talked him through the moment and discussed less risky ways to get through the next few months.

In September, after his yearlong training period, Mr. Jarrett became a full-time web developer for Persevere itself, earning about $55,000 a year — a fluke, he said, until he builds enough experience for a more senior role at a private. -sector’s employer.

Persevere is relatively small (active in six states) and rare in design. Nevertheless, the program requires extraordinary success compared to conventional approaches.

In many measures, over 60 per cent of previously imprisoned people are arrested or sentenced again. Executives at Persevere report single-digit relapse rates among participants who complete the program, with 93 percent placed in jobs and an 85 percent retention rate, defined as still working a year later.

“We’re working with ordinary people who made a very big mistake, so anything I can do to help them live a fruitful, peaceful, good life is what I want to do,” said Julie Landers, a program manager at Persevere in Atlanta- the area.

If neither employers nor governments “roll the dice” on the millions convicted of serious crimes, Landers argued, “we’re going to get what we’ve always gotten”—cycles of poverty and crime—”and that’s the definition of insanity.”

Dant’e Cottingham received a 17-year-to-life sentence for first-degree intentional homicide in the killing of another man and served 27 years. While in prison, he completed a law program. As a job seeker afterward, he battled the stigma of a criminal record—an obstacle he tries to help others overcome.

While working a couple of minimum-wage restaurant jobs in Wisconsin after his release last year, he volunteered as an organizer for EXPO – EX-incarcerated People Organizing – a non-profit group, funded mostly by grants and donations, that aims to “rehabilitate formerly incarcerated people to full participation in the life of our local communities.”

Now he works full-time for the group, meeting with local businesses to persuade them to take on people with criminal records. He also works for another group, Project WisHope, as a peer support specialist, using his experience to counsel current and former incarcerated people.

It can still feel like a small victory “just to get someone for an interview,” Cottingham said, with only two or three companies typically showing preliminary interest in anyone with a serious record.

“I’m running into some doors, but I keep talking, I keep trying, I keep setting up meetings to have the discussion,” he said. “However, it is not easy.”

Ed Hennings, who started a Milwaukee-based trucking company in 2016, sees things from two perspectives: as a formerly incarcerated person and as an employer.

Hennings served 20 years in prison for reckless homicide in a confrontation he and his uncle had with another man. Although he mostly hires formerly incarcerated men — at least 20 so far — he candidly tells some candidates that he has limited “room to figure out whether you’ve changed or not.” Still, Mr. Hennings, 51, is quick to add that he has been frustrated by employers who use these conditions as a blanket excuse.

“I understand that it takes a little more work to try to decipher all of this, but I know from hiring people myself that you just have to use your judgment,” he said. “There are some people who come home who are just not ready to change – true enough – but there are a large number who are ready to change, given the opportunity.”

In addition to greater educational opportunities before release, he believes giving employers incentives such as subsidies to do what they would otherwise not want to do may be among the few solutions that stick, even if there is a tough political hurdle.

“It’s hard for them not to look at you a certain way, and harder still for them to get over that stigma,” Mr. Hennings said. “And it’s part of the conditions and the culture of American society.”

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