3May 2016

Job Hope for Released Convicts

The statistics are discouraging. The United States incarcerates more of its residents than any other country, and once they are released, the chances of finding employment with a criminal record are not good. About 75% of the 650,000 people released from state prisons annually will still be unemployed a year later…even when some have applied for many positions. Many large and small companies will hesitate–if not flatly refuse–to hire an ex-con, even though that practice is against the law. It looks even more discriminatory when considering that a large proportion of former prisoners are Latino and black men who live in poverty-stricken communities. A small pilot project in the state of Louisiana has been launched that may provide a model for fixing the problem.

Louisiana has the worst record in the world for imprisoning huge numbers of residents, especially in New Orleans, where 1 in 14 black men are in jail. When they are released, if they can find work at all, it is a temporary, part-time, or poorly paying menial job. They typically live in communities where up to 50% of the adult men are unemployed. One survey showed that if two men had identical qualifications for a job, the one with a criminal record had less than a 50% job of being hired. If the applicant was black, that number jumped to 65%. Those who do get a job earn an average of 40% less than someone who has not been in prison doing the same job.

In 2014, Louisiana’s Eastern District Attorney, Kenneth Polite, launched a program called “30-2+2” in the New Orleans metropolitan area. He modeled the program after a similar effort in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called “30-2-2”, where two local businesses started an initiative to employ former inmates. The Grand Rapids goal was to enlist 30 companies which would each employ two released prisoners for two year. Both programs are designed to battle an additional problem in their respective communities–skilled labor shortages.

The New Orleans program is making use of a reentry program at Angola State Prison which resides in West Feliciana Parish. There, inmates receive job training, including two years of vocational training in areas such as welding, automotive repair, and culinary arts.  In addition, they get intensive behavioral therapy, including anger management, as well as parenting and substance abuse counseling. This gives inmates some job skills and makes them more employable. Once they are released, they have a chance at getting a good job with one of the companies participating in 30-2+2.

Efforts are also being made to encourage companies to consider a job candidate’s qualifications before ever asking about criminal history. Cities and counties in 21 states have adopted “ban the box” policies requiring companies to delete the question of past incarceration on their job applications.

District Attorney Polite says the program addresses several issues, including moral, economic, and workforce. He states that without programs like 30-2+2, “we are not safer as a country, we’ve doomes the same people to cycle through the prison system, and we’re robbing ourselves of potential workers.”