Those who have the black mark of a felony conviction face prejudice in the job market even when the economic picture is rosy. In these times of the Great Recession, that black mark has the ex-con jobless rate six times higher than those without a felony record. Experts in the field say the situation for many ex-cons leads to desperation to make ends meet, which increases the likelihood they will reoffend.
With about 700,000 people being released from state and federal prisons yearly, there is a large pool of people needing work. Budget crunches nationwide have officials looking to release prisoners to save money, and whether those released find employment will often determine if they become statistics of recidivism.
“If people get drawn back into the real world, get a job and make a living, studies show they’ll be less likely to go back to prison,” said Howard Husock, vice president of policy research at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “With early release now on the menu for so many states, it makes the matter more pressing.”
The national unemployment rate has been hovering at around ten percent since late 2009. This pits former prisoners against those who have never served time for jobs in a tight market. The unemployment rate for ex-cons is not tracked by the U.S. Department of Labor, but experts estimate the jobless rate for them is 40 to 60 percent.
“A lot of people are hitting a very poor economy,” said Carol Peeples, reentry coordinator for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition in Denver. Even in good times this results in “over half [going] back to jail in three years. The lack of employment plays a big part in this.”
It is essential that ex-cons find a job earning at least minimum wage within two months of release to avoid returning to jail within the first year, says Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington.
The Great Recession has lengthened the line of job seekers. “Our folks are always at the back of the line when it comes to employment, and that line has gotten longer,” said Glenn Martin, director of the Fortune Society, a New York based prisoner re-entry non-profit.
To prevent a repeat of the 1980s, which saw prison releases to save money in recessionary times and high recidivist rates, some prison officials and advocates are focusing on job training and prisoner re-entry programs.
Chicago’s Sheridan prison focuses on programs that not only train prisoners for jobs, but which aim to lead prisoners to recognizing criminal behavioral patterns within themselves. Once released, prisoners are provided a support system to help them successfully transition into society.
Traditional prisons are not places that prepare one for employment, and advocates hope to instill skills that enable success. “Not everyone is ready for the workforce,” said Ingrid Johnson of the Prisoner Re-entry Initiative in Newark, New Jersey. “They need to be trained not only in job skills, but basic employability issues.”
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