The US unemployment rate is hovering near lows not seen since the 1960s. A few months ago, there were about two jobs 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 or arrest records — a population disproportionately male and black — has remarkably high unemployment rates. finished 60 percent of those leaving prison are unemployed a year later, looking for work but not finding it.
That stark reality endured even as the social upheaval following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 gave impetus to a “two-chance hiring” movement in corporate America aimed at hiring candidates with criminal records. And the gap exists even as unemployment for minority groups in general is near record lows.
Many states have “ban the box” laws prohibiting initial job applications from asking if applicants 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 reappraisal in recent years.
For economic policymakers, a persistent demand for work coupled with a persistent lack of work for many former prisoners presents an awkward conundrum: a broad walking of citizens re-entered society – after a quadrupling the US prison term more than 40 years — but the economic engine of the nation is not sure what to do with them.
“These are people trying to compete in the legal job market,” said Shawn D. Bushway, an economist and criminologist at the RAND Corporation, who estimates that 64 percent of the unemployed have been arrested and that 46 percent have been convicted. “You can’t say, ‘Well, these people are just lazy’ or ‘These people really 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 criminal records, making the middle class increasingly less attainable for the unemployed” in this cohort. .
One challenge is a long-standing assumption that people with criminal records are more likely to be difficult, untrustworthy or unreliable employees. DeAnna Hoskins, the president of JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit group focused on reducing incarceration, said she challenged that concern as redundant. In addition, she said, locking former prisoners out of the job market can foster “survival crime” by people who want to make ends meet.
One way shown to curb recidivism—relapse into criminal behavior—is to deepen investments in prison education so that former 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 re-incarceration costs.
Last year, a chapter of the Council of Economic Advisers of the White House Economic Report of the President was dedicated, in part, to “gross evidence of labor discrimination against formerly incarcerated people.” The Biden administration announced that the Department of Justice and Labor will dedicate $145 million over two years to job training and re-entry services for federal prisoners.
Mr Bushway pointed to another approach: wider government-subsidised jobs 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 hiring workers with criminal records.
But Mr. Bushway and Ms. Hoskins said any consequential changes would likely need support 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, received 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 altercation with the man, who was armed, turned physical, and Mr. Jarrett, also armed, fatally shot him.
Mr. Jarrett pleaded guilty to a charge of manslaughter and received a 12-year sentence. Released in 2021 after his term was reduced for good behavior, he found that he continued to pay for his crime, in a literal sense.
Housing was hard to come by. Mr. Jarrett owed child support. And despite a buoyant job market, he struggled to scrape together a living, finding employers hesitant to offer him a full-time job that paid enough to cover his bills.
“One night someone from my past called me, man, and they offered me a chance to get back in the game,” he said — with options like “doing scams, selling drugs, you name it.”
One reason he held out, Mr. Jarrett said, was his decision a few weeks earlier to sign up for 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, offering job programs to those recently released from prison and those within three years of release. It couples that effort with “surrounding services” — including mentorship, transportation, temporary housing and access to basic necessities — to address financial and mental health needs.
For Mr. Jarrett, that network helped solidify a life change. When he got the phone call with the old friend, he called a mental health counselor at Persevere.
“I said, ‘Man, is this for real?'” he recalled. “I told him, ‘I got child support, I just lost another job, and someone offered me a chance to make money now, and I want 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 one-year training period, Mr. Jarrett became a full-time web developer for Persevere himself, earning about $55,000 a year — happiness, he said, until he builds enough experience for a more senior role at private. -employer sector.
Persevere is relatively small (active in six states) and rare in its design. However, its program requires extraordinary success compared to conventional approaches.
By many measures, more than 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people are arrested or convicted again. Executives at Persevere report recidivism in the single digits among participants who complete its program, with 93 percent placed in jobs and an 85 percent retention rate, defined as still working a year later.
“We work with regular people who have 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, program manager at Persevere in the Atlanta area
If neither employers nor governments “roll the dice” on the millions convicted of serious crimes, Ms. Landers argued, “we’ll get what we’ve always gotten” — cycles of poverty and criminality – “and that is the definition of insanity.”
Pushing for Change
Dant’e Cottingham received a life sentence at 17 for first-degree intentional homicide in the killing of another man and served 27 years. While in prison, he completed a paralegal program. As a job seeker later, he battled the stigma of a criminal record — an obstacle he tries to help others overcome.
Working at a few minimum-wage restaurant jobs in Wisconsin after his release last year, he volunteered as an organizer for EXPO – Ex-incarcerated People’s Organization – a nonprofit group, primarily funded by grants and donations, that aims to “restore formerly incarcerated people to full participation in the life of our 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 WisHopeas a peer support specialist, using his experience to counsel currently and formerly incarcerated people.
It can still feel like a minor win “just to get someone interviewed,” Mr. Cottingham said, with only two or three companies typically showing prior interest in anyone with a serious track record.
“I run into some doors, but I keep talking, I keep trying, I keep holding 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.
Mr. 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’s limited “a swipe to decipher whether you’ve changed or not.” However, Mr Hennings, 51, was quick to add that he was frustrated by employers who use those circumstances as a blanket excuse.
“I understand that it takes a little more work to try to decipher all of this, but I know for myself that you just have to be on your judgment game,” he said. “There are some people who come home who just aren’t ready to change – true enough – but there’s a large proportion who are ready to change, given the opportunity.”
In addition to greater educational opportunities before release, he thinks giving employers incentives as grants to make which they would not otherwise do may be among the few solutions that stick, although it is a a difficult 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 that’s part of the conditioning and culture of American society.”