In the free world, anyone looking for a job these days should have an easy time finding one. The U.S. economy seems in decent shape and economic statistics look positive for a post-Covid recovery. Measurements of employment look especially favorable for job seekers; unemployment has hit recent lows and job openings continue to run high.
One group, though, has a less-than-easy time in dealing with the job market. According to a New York Times article by Talmon Joseph Smith, “Americans with records of imprisonment or arrests – a population disproportionately male and Black – have remarkably high jobless rates.”
Over 60% of formerly incarcerated job seekers do not have a job one year after release. “Ban the box” laws that prohibit questions about criminal history in job applications take applicants beyond the foot-in-the-door stage of the employment-seeking process. After interviews and background checks, though, job offers often do not materialize.
“These are people that are trying to compete in the legal labor market … You can’t say, ‘Well, these people are just lazy,’ or ‘These people really don’t want to work,’” said economist and criminologist Shawn D. Bushway of RAND Corporation, a public policy research organization.
Bushway’s study found that returned citizens lucky enough to find jobs “earn significantly less than their counterparts without criminal history records, making the middle class ever less reachable for unemployed men” in this category. “The nation’s economic engine is not sure what to do” with returning citizens, Smith wrote.
“Economic exclusion can necessitate survival crime by formerly incarcerated persons who must make ends meet,” said DeAnna Hoskins, the president of the nonprofit group JustLeadershipUSA, which aims to decrease incarceration rates. Survival crime directly relates to a relapse into criminality – or recidivism.
According to the article, Hoskins challenged the notion of persons with criminal histories as difficult, untrustworthy, or unreliable. Bushway and Hoskins believe that any improvements in employment circumstances for formerly incarcerated persons depend on support from state and city governments, according to the article.
The RAND analysis confirms that education for incarcerated persons reduces recidivism by 43%. For every dollar invested in prison education, taxpayers would save $4 to $5 in reimprisonment expenditures. Bushway would like to see broad government sponsorship of employment programs with wage subsidies for businesses.
Contributions from the nonprofit sector go a long way in bridging the employment gap. Persevere, a nonprofit currently active in six states, offers “wraparound services” far beyond their technical job training in software development. The services extend into the beneficial realms of “mentorship, transportation, temporary housing and access to basic necessities,” the article says.
Unsurprisingly, such unparalleled support allows the program to show exceptional success. Persevere reports recidivism for its program-participants at a single-digit rate with a 93% job placement rate and 85% of its placed workers still on their jobs a year later.
To depart from cycles of poverty and criminality, Persevere program manager Julie Landers wants employers and governments to take chances on persons incarcerated for serious crimes, the Times said. If that does not happen, “we’re going to get what we’ve always gotten,” warns Landers.
“Age makes a difference,” said San Quentin North Block resident Darryl Farris. “In California, they keep us in prison for so long that it makes us so unemployable that almost no program would help us. Anyone in prison for a few years would have an easier time finding a job than someone who served more than two decades.”
Farris, 65 years old and incarcerated for 27 years, expects to collect social security and a military pension once released, which he calls “a start.” Having earned an AA degree from Mount Tamalpais College and having worked as a GED tutor at San Quentin gave him the skills to tutor math on the outside. “If my tutoring helps someone and at the same time pays my bills, then my time did not go to waste,” he said.