We’re dealing with two crises in America—civil unrest and a global pandemic. They are seemingly separate but both are linked to our country’s history of racial injustice and the practice of using policing and incarceration to enforce it.
America’s legacy of mass incarceration is fueling the COVID-19 pandemic and the inequity of its impact. Overcrowding in prisons and jails makes it impossible to implement social distancing and sanitation guidelines. Recent protests across the country of George Floyd’s murder reflect the frustration and anger at the breadth of injustice in the country.
The disproportionately African American prison population is among the most vulnerable to the virus. As a result, the COVID-19 infection rates are almost two-and-a-half times higher in prisons and jails than in the general population. This rampant contagion rate coupled with inadequate health care have made prisons and jails a COVID-19 “time bomb.”
The burden of reentry, like the pandemic, disproportionately disadvantages African Americans and Latinx people.
To mitigate this threat, local, state, and federal jurisdictions have established criteria to release thousands of people from the country’s prisons. With each jurisdiction developing its own plans, advocates are putting pressure on those moving slowly or where criteria gives preference to white people. Reductions in the prison population are a milestone in the United States, which leads the world in incarceration rates. But at the same time, we make reentry way too hard.
Thousands of people are released from prison with $20, $100, or $500 in gate money and no supports for getting skills training or a job. When they get home, they face barriers and exclusions in nearly every dimension of public and private life, from housing to health care; education to employment; cellphone service to child care.
The burden of reentry, like the pandemic, disproportionately disadvantages African Americans and Latinx people. We can fix this mess of collateral consequences so that returning home can be the first step toward economic mobility. Here are four ways that it can be done.
1. Integrate Supports With Quality Education and Training for Economic Mobility
Most education and training for the reentry population are through transitional or short-term job training programs. Strong programs, like the Center for Employment Opportunity transitional jobs training programs, have been proven effective in job placement and in reducing recidivism: two critical milestones. People are not in a position to enter or persist in these programs if they can’t meet their basic needs—or, as is the case now—they return to a situation as chaotic as a COVID-19 ravaged community and civil unrest without supports.
Corrections systems leaders need to ensure a warm handoff “from the gate” and into community-based organizations (CBO) that provide comprehensive supports and the quality education and training that will help people reentering society to get jobs and earn a living. For example, the Safer Foundation in Chicago is working with the state prison system to provide “triage”-level supports to the people being released from Illinois prisons and connecting them to Safer’s comprehensive supports and job training programs. Given the increased numbers of people being released, we need more public and private investments to scale programs like this so that communities can meet the need.
Postsecondary credentials, including certificates and associate's degrees, position people for employment and economic advancement. We need to create partnerships between organizations that create pathways to these credentials and CBOs so returning citizens can set a trajectory to economic mobility. Integrated education models in community colleges, like Washington State’s I-BEST program, and institutions participating in JFF’s Accelerating Opportunity initiative accelerate the time it takes to get a postsecondary credential and improve employment outcomes.
Work-based pathways, like pre-apprenticeship to apprenticeship programs offer similar long-term employment benefits, especially for participants with criminal records. This is the victory for criminal justice reform: when people with records aren’t just getting by, they’re getting ahead.
2. Make Equity the Focal Point and Not a Casualty of This Crisis
The pandemic is a mirror reflecting all of the inequities in our country. People of color, and especially women of color, are in frontline jobs where they face greater exposure to coronavirus infection. In the face of unprecedented unemployment, people exiting reentry job-training programs are facing hard choices: take a job for much-needed income and risk COVID-19 infection or don’t work and have no money to support themselves. They’re forced to work, but employers are not required to provide adequate personal protective equipment or the benefits of paid time off if they get sick.
Program providers and employers need to ensure that the members of the reentry population are not sacrificed on the altar of “essential workers.” Policymakers need to step up to require these protections.
3. Mitigate the Collateral Consequences of Convictions
There are approximately 44,000 regulations nationwide that impact nearly every aspect of daily life for people with criminal records, and 14,000 collateral consequences put specific constraints on employment. On average, a state has 56 occupational and 43 business licensing laws that prohibit hiring people with records. This is especially problematic because high-demand occupations, like health care, are heavily licensed and perceived to be off limits to people with records. These collateral consequences of convictions shackle people long past their actual incarceration, even if the conviction is a juvenile offense.
Mitigating collateral consequences is especially critical, since we are increasing the number of people released from prison during this pandemic. State policy leaders can lead this charge.
Statewide task forces that include corrections, workforce, and employer stakeholders, including those with criminal records, should review collateral consequences and eliminate those with no connection to occupational competencies or public safety. We need to eliminate arbitrary and discriminatory policies that exacerbate the unemployment crisis by prohibiting skilled people from working in the fields for which they have trained.
4. Implement Equitable and Inclusive Hiring Practices
COVID-19 has put a halt to most hiring. When employers begin hiring as the country moves past the crisis and into recovery, they should consider returning citizens as part of the talent pool. Workers with convictions have proven their productivity, value, and performance as employees.
Employers can take advantage of this talent by implementing inclusive hiring practices. Remove questions about criminal records from applications and delay background checks until the final rounds of selection—when applicants have had a chance to prove their competencies. Employers championing these practices can lead the way for their peers.
Local and state policymakers need to intervene where discrimination persists. Research shows that people with a criminal record are 50 percent less likely to get called back despite employers’ stated intentions about hiring people with criminal records. “Ban the box” policies can push employers to practice what they preach with respect to inclusive hiring. Taking action is a matter of justice and prosperity.
Employers need to ensure that the reentry population are not sacrificed on the altar of “essential workers.
Stakeholders also need to mitigate structural racism to ensure equitable economic mobility. Even where “ban the box” policies exist, racial discrimination is a labor market constant, and this is a double bind for the disproportionately black and brown workers with criminal records. Rigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination policies and laws is still needed to address the history of racism in the employment sector.
It is daunting to address this problem during a pandemic, but the steps we take now can accelerate progress in addressing reentry challenges for the future. There are thousands of people coming home from prison imminently, and there are 77 million who are already in our communities but still shackled by the employment barriers and structural racism facing people with a criminal record.
The public health crisis triggered one aspect of justice—early releases from prisons and jails. The protests continuing into their second week over George Floyd’s murder while in the hands of Minneapolis police reveal the frustration and anger at the extent of injustice in the nation. We can make this time of crisis an opportunity for change if stakeholders come together across sectors, listening and acting on the expertise of people most impacted by the injustice, to make equity and justice the “new normal.”
This topic will be further explored at JFF’s Horizons virtual experience in a session titled “Turning Reentry into Opportunity,” scheduled for Monday at 3 p.m. Free registration is available here.