Updated: Feb 9
There’s an old, old saying that says if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, but if you teach him to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. While fishing isn’t the most relevant to post-incarceration employment, the principle still applies. Finding a job is already difficult, but add involvement with the justice system, as well as a pandemic, and it becomes increasingly harder. This article will address struggles that come with lack of employment after or during someone’s involvement with the criminal justice system, potential changes, and suggestions on what should happen in the long term to improve lives in the long term.
In a conversation with John Koufos, National Director of Reentry Initiatives at Right on Crime, we discussed things that happen when access to employment or even money is compromised. On top of navigating a competitive job space, those who are formerly incarcerated also have to deal with social stigma, administrative hurdles, among emotional health issues that arise as a result. Eventually, many of those who are released from facilities end up returning due to unpaid fees or fines they may have accrued. Before the pandemic, there was a stark difference in unemployment rates among those formerly incarcerated with rates as high as 27 percent. While we are starting to see a return of jobs and opportunities, if we don’t prepare people or address the barriers before it’s time for a job search, new jobs mean little to nothing. Further, if these employers are not willing to hire those involved with the system, we don’t have as many new jobs as we count.
Employers who are willing to hire and source talent from formerly incarcerated populations usually indicate so. Many applications require everyone to disclose their history with the justice system, leading to stigma and pre-screening. In recent years, the charge to “ban the box,” or the requirement to disclose, has won federally and across 37 states. These wins only affect the public sector, which is better than nothing, but private sector jobs are a crucial step in equalizing the job field for justice involved individuals. 14 states and 20 cities have extended their laws to private sector employment, another huge step, and as of 2020, three-fourths of the U.S population live in a jurisdiction that bans the box. Where someone lives should not decide their chances of success with employment. Beyond banning the box, most lists use outdated terms, further contributing to the social stigma many face.
Changes in the government’s approach should also include support and funds necessary to ensure a smooth transition for returning citizens. If the goal is to reduce recidivism, it’s pertinent to have a safety net where those involved with the justice system can find relief. A 2018 study about correctional control found that returning citizens on average have to balance 18-20+ requirements a day. Coupled with searching for work, securing housing, and the overall pressure from reentry, it’s easier to return to prisons than it is to “successfully” reenter society.
One challenge to providing this environment is the lack of resources and personnel to provide individualized plans for each person. This is no excuse, but further evidence that money should be used to support those incarcerated, as well as the organizations that assist reentry. Money saving practices since the pandemic’s start have included filling only crucial funding and closing units, are among ways facilities have decreased their ability to serve those inside after the pandemic. Finally, reentry programs should be evidenced based and backed by empirical research. It’s important to know what works, what doesn’t, and what should be improved based on the state, facility, and person.
Nonprofits and organizations try to pick up where the government cannot. There are national, regional, and local groups that provide everything from affordable housing to employment support and continue to serve as a safety net. See a list below for some of those organizations. In order for them to continue the work they do, they have to have the funding, policy, and general resources to adequately serve the populations they do.