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Study on Barriers to Employment of Ex-Prisoners in Milwaukee Released

by Matt Clarke

In early 2007, the Employment Training Institute (ETI) of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee released a study assessing the legal and employment needs of ex-prisoners residing in Milwaukee County.

The study of 26,772 adults released from Wisconsin prisons since 1993 found that ex-prisoners faced significant hurdles to post-incarceration employment. This included persistent legal problems, low education rates, high recidivism rates and drivers license suspension or revocation. Some prisoners faced housing difficulties because their drug convictions made them ineligible for all federally subsidized housing. Those prisoners faced difficulties in obtaining additional education as their drug convictions rendered then ineligible for Pell grants to attend vocational education or college classes. Drug convictions also rendered some ex-prisoners ineligible for food stamps and other social assistance programs.

Prior ETI studies of other population groups showed possession of a driver?s license to be more important than education level in determining whether a person can attain and maintain employment. This is probably because 75% of the open jobs in Milwaukee were in locations not well served by public transportation. Therefore, ETI recommended that the prison system assess prisoners? driver?s license status when they arrive and initiate a license restoration initiative so that prisoners who are required to serve a waiting period prior to license restoration can do so while in prison. ETI also recommended that the prison system prepare prisoners to take the written drivers license test, allow prisoners to apply for a drivers license while still in prison, assign Department of Transportation staff to administer the written test prior to the prisoners? release, schedule appointments for the road test immediately upon release, and create the possibility for prisoners to work off reinstatement and application fees through incentives for good behavior or prison work programs.

ETI suggested that the prison system track pre- and post-incarceration employment to determine the effectiveness of their programs. ETI also suggested that the City of Milwaukee examine the negative economic impact of its policy of suspending the license for failure to pay fines as implemented against prisoners and the newly-released. It also suggested that the prison system, Department of Workforce Development, Private Industry Council and community partners improve coordination so they can target sufficient direct services to the prison and ex-prisoner population in Milwaukee County. Finally, it recommended increasing funding for education to train ex-prisoner Milwaukee residents.

The study showed that the number of ex-prisoners released to Milwaukee County increased fourfold from around 2,000 in 1993 to over 8,000 in 2005, a disproportionate of who were young black males. Around 40% of the black males in the age group 25 through 34 living in Milwaukee have been previously imprisoned. This compares with around 5% for the white and Hispanic population. Around 80% of the blacks in that age group who were released from prison have suspended or revoked driver?s licenses. Around 70% of Hispanic releasees have not completed high school. This compares with around 60% for blacks and 37% for whites. These disparities indicate that specific racial groups may need targeted programs tailored to their specific needs. See: Barriers to Employment: Prison Time by John Pawasarat, Employment and Training Institute, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2007.

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