Ex-Prisoners Face Headwinds as Job Seekers, Even as Openings Abound

The U.S. unemployment rate is hovering near the lowest levels seen since the 1960s. A few months ago, there were roughly two job openings for every unemployed person in the country. Many standard economic models suggest that nearly everyone who wants a job has one.

However, unemployment is significantly higher among a broad group of Americans with a history of incarceration or arrest, whose population is disproportionately male and black.that’s all 60 percent Of those who get out of prison, they are unemployed after a year and are looking for work but can’t find one.

Even though the social upheaval following the 2020 murder of George Floyd has fueled a “second-chance hiring” campaign by American companies aimed at hiring candidates with criminal records, the harsh reality is I endured. And this disparity exists despite unemployment rates across minorities being near record lows.

Many states have “prohibition laws” that prohibit asking candidates about their criminal record when they first apply for a job. But especially for convictions more serious than non-violent drug crimes, which have seen a sympathetic public reappraisal in recent years, prison records can hinder progress after interviews and background checks.

For economic policymakers, the persistent job shortages and persistent demand for labor among many ex-convicts poses a thorny conundrum. band After the citizens of US incarceration rate quadruples For over 40 years – but the economic powerhouses of this country don’t know what to do with them.

“They are people trying to compete in the legal labor market,” said RAND Corporation economist and criminologist Sean D. estimated to have been convicted. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, these people are just lazy,’ or, ‘These people really don’t want to work.'”

Bushway and co-authors in their research paper found that when ex-convicts get a job, they “earn significantly less than inmates with no criminal record, and the middle class is more likely to be unemployed in this group.” It’s getting harder for men to reach.” .

One of the challenges is the longstanding assumption that people with criminal records are more likely to be difficult or unreliable employees. Deanna Hoskins, president of Just Leadership USA, a nonprofit focused on reducing incarceration, disputed that her concerns were overblown. Moreover, keeping ex-convicts out of the labor market could foster “survival crimes” by those trying to make a living, she said.

One way to prevent recidivism, or reversion to criminal behavior, is to invest more in prison education so that ex-inmates have more demonstrable and valuable skills to reintegrate into society.

A RAND analysis found that inmates who participate in education programs are 43% less likely to be re-incarcerated than others, and that for every dollar spent on prison education, the government saves money on re-incarceration costs. Saves you $4-5.

last year, chapter of the White House Council of Economic Advisers presidential economic report In part, it was dedicated to “substantial evidence of discrimination by workers against previously imprisoned people.” The Biden administration has announced that the Justice and Labor Departments will invest $145 million over two years in job training and re-entry services for federal prison inmates.

Mr. Bushway pointed to a different approach: a broader government-sponsored employment program for those out of prison. Such programs were more widespread at the federal level even before the anti-crime movement of the 1980s, offering incentives such as wage subsidies to companies hiring workers with criminal records.

But Bushway and Hoskins said the resulting change would likely require support and coordination from states and cities. Some are small, but Ambitious Efforts are underway.

In May 2016, Jabarre Jarrett of Ripley, Tennessee, a small town about 25 miles east of the Mississippi River, got a call from his sister. She told Jarrett, then 27, that her boyfriend had assaulted her. Her frustrated and angry Ms. Jarrett went to see her in her car. An argument with an armed man turned violent, and Mr. Jarrett, who was also armed, shot the man dead.

Jarrett pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was released in 2021 after his good deeds cut his term short, but it turns out he’s still paying for his sins, in the literal sense of the word.

Housing was difficult to come by. Jarrett was obliged to pay child support. And despite a vibrant labor market, employers were reluctant to offer him a full-time job that paid enough to cover his living expenses, and he struggled to make ends meet.

“Someone from my past called me one night and they offered me a chance to get back into the game,” he said. It included options like “running scams, selling drugs, whatever.”

Jarrett said one of the reasons for his resistance was that a few weeks ago, out of curiosity, he decided to enroll in a program called Persevere.

Persevere, a nonprofit funded by federal grants, private donations, and state partnerships, focuses on deterring recidivism, in part through technical vocational training, for recently released prisoners. of people and those within three years of their release from prison. The effort combines “whole-sale services” such as guidance, transportation, temporary housing and access to basic necessities to address financial and mental health needs.

For Jarrett, the network helped ensure a life change. After hanging up with his old friend, he called Persivia’s mental health counselor.

“I said, ‘Hey, is this real?'” he recalled. “I said to him, ‘I’m getting child support and I just lost my job again, and someone offered me an opportunity to make money right now, and I really want to turn it down. , there is no hope.’ A counselor told him of this moment and discussed less risky ways to get through the next few months.

After a year of training, Jarrett became a full-time web developer at Persevere in September, earning about $55,000 a year. He said he was lucky until he had enough experience to land a senior position in the private sector. -Department Employer.

Persevere is relatively small (active in six states) and unusual in its design. However, he claims the program has been a phenomenal success compared to traditional approaches.

By various criteria, more than 60 percent of those once imprisoned are re-arrested or convicted. Persevier executives reported recidivism rates in the single digits among participants who completed the program, with 93% finding employment and an 85% retention rate, defined as still working after one year.

“We work with ordinary people who have made such a big mistake that we want to do whatever we can to help them live a productive, peaceful and good life,” said Persevier program manager Julie Landers. said Mr. Atlanta area.

Unless employers and governments “throw the dice” on the millions sentenced to serious crimes, “we will get what we always got,” Mr Landers argued. . poverty And criminality – “That’s the definition of insanity.”

Dante Cottingham served 27 years in prison for 1st degree willful murder for murdering another man at the age of 17. During his time in prison, he completed a paralegal program. Later, as a job seeker, he battled the stigma of his criminal record. He seeks to help others overcome this obstacle.

After being released last year, he volunteered as an EXPO organizer while working several jobs at minimum-wage restaurants in Wisconsin. Organizing Former Prisoners – A non-profit organization funded primarily by grants and donations, whose aim is to “bring formerly incarcerated people fully into the life of their communities.”

He now works full-time with the group, meeting with local businesses to convince them to accept people with criminal records. He is also active in other groups, project with hopea peer support specialist, uses her experience to counsel current and former incarcerated people.

Cottingham said this could still feel like a small win for “just getting someone interviewed,” and usually shows only preliminary interest in someone with a significant track record. He said there were only three.

“Sometimes it hits a few doors, but I keep talking, I keep trying, I keep setting up meetings to discuss,” he said. “But it’s not easy.”

Ed Hennings, who founded his Milwaukee-based trucking company in 2016, sees things from two perspectives: as an ex-inmate and as an employer.

Hennings was sentenced to 20 years in prison for reckless murder after a confrontation between his uncle and another man. Even though he employs mostly ex-incarcerated men (at least 20 so far), he says some candidates have limited “room to decipher if you’ve changed”. spoke frankly. Still, Hennings, 51, was quick to add that he was frustrated by employers who used the situation as a blanket excuse.

“I know it takes a little more effort to decipher all of this, but I know from my own hiring experience that you have to use your judgment,” he said. said. “There are still people who are not ready to change when they return home, and that is certainly true, but the vast majority of people are ready to change if given the chance.”

In addition to greater educational opportunities before his release, he believes: incentivize employers something like a subsidy to what they wouldn’t do otherwise Even if it’s a problem, it might be one of the few solutions that sticks. tough political hurdles.

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

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