Ex-offenders face significant challenges in weak job market

theGRIO REPORT - The weak job market presents challenges for all job seekers, but even greater challenges for one group: ex-offenders....

The weak job market presents challenges for all job seekers, but even greater challenges for one group: ex-offenders. CNBC producer Shartia Brantley reports on some unique efforts to address the issue.


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The job market has been challenging over the past few years to say the least. Although the national unemployment rate dipped to 8.6 percent in November, there are still 13.3 million Americans without a job, according to the Labor Department.

There are countless stories of professionals with college degrees having a difficult time finding work, but imagine how much more difficult it is to find a job when you have a criminal record?

The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates the U.S. economy lost the equivalent of 1.5 million to 1.7 million workers or roughly a 0.8 to 0.9 percent reduction in the overall employment rate, according to their report entitled “Ex-offenders and the Labor Market,” which analyzes data from 2008. The group estimates the lost economic input from ex-offender unemployment is between $57 billion and $65 billion.

William Rodgers, professor of public policy at Rutgers University and former chief economist at the U.S. Labor Department, emphasizes the impact on the local communities where ex-offenders reside.

“The official unemployment rate might be 9 percent…10 percent,” Rodgers says. “In many of the cases where many of the ex-offenders reside or return to you’re talking about unemployment rates that are double digit — 15 to 20 percent.” He adds that under employed and discouraged workers may lead to an unemployment rate of 25 percent or 40 percent for some these local areas.

The wage losses the formerly incarcerated face can be daunting. Cornell William Brooks, President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, estimates a male with a criminal record can expect to lose $100,000 in income across the prime earning years of their 20s to early 50s. “Ex-offenders have a loan with an exorbitant interest rate they pay again and again throughout their life,” Brooks says.

“It’s an economic issue. It’s hard for the community to thrive if the people can’t work,” Brooks warns.

Re-entering the labor market through “green jobs”

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics more than 729,000 people were released from state and federal custody in 2009. The state of New York accounted for about 25,000 releases that year and had the sixth highest number of releases in 2009.

The lack of hard and soft skills poses a major barrier to securing employment upon release. “One of the biggies is the lack of job skills or skills that may have eroded while they were incarcerated,” Rodgers says.

The Department of Labor has allocated $32 million this year towards re-entry programs. On December 5th Labor Secretary Hilda Solis held a meeting in Washington, D.C. on successful re-entry and workforce programs for the formerly incarcerated.

In July the Environmental Protection Agency awarded a $300,000 grant to the Fortune Society, a New York non-profit, to recruit, train and place ex-offenders in green jobs.

Fortune Society launched the Green Lantern Project and expects to train 60 ex-offenders and place at least 42 of them in jobs. They will also track the graduates for one year. The second training group is now in session.

Based in Long Island City Queens, the Fortune Society assists about 3,000 formerly incarcerated men and women transitioning back into society each year.

Matthew Shelton, a 28-year-old from Brooklyn, was convicted of a felony and released from prison in June. He recently completed training and is ready to apply his new skills in energy auditing and building science. “I’m really enthused about putting that training into effect right now. To complete training shows a big effort on my part to change,” Shelton says.

Encouraging employers to hire ex-offenders

Stigma also poses a huge barrier for many ex-offenders seeking employment.

“Employers will say they want to hire, but have to deal with the perception of fellow employees and customers,” Rodgers says.

Andrew Plaskett, a 32-year old veteran and father of three from Queens was convicted of a felony and released last year. He was looking for a job for over a year before finding the Fortune Society. He recently completed the program and will start a three-month internship soon. He acknowledges the tough work ahead at changing perception. “I’m not the man I was before. There’s a difference between someone making a mistake and actually being a criminal.”

Stanley Richards, Senior Vice President of Programs at The Fortune Society, says their organization leads by example to encourage small and mid-size companies to hire.
“I’m formerly incarcerated and I’m the senior vice president of the agency. [I] started as a counselor and worked my way up. We ask for people to give them an opportunity to showcase the skills and commitment they have,” Richards says.

Besides tax incentives Rodgers says bonding is a way government can encourage employers to hire ex-offenders. “Provide bonding for employers, basically taking on some of the risk associated with hiring ex-offenders.”

Brooks says the government has a role to play. He recommends the government evaluate three things regarding employment: crime committed, job to be held and actual risk imposed. “If there is not a rational relationship among the three it’s time to rethink,” Brooks emphasizes.

Jobs and recidivism

The State of Recidivism report by The Pew Center estimates more than four in ten offenders will return to prison within three years of their release.

Brooks notes it’s difficult to say with laser like precision that recession drives recidivism up or down. “A person is less likely to go back to prison if they are making anything near a living wage,” he says.

Oscar Rivera, a 50-year old husband and father, recently served 75 days in jail and is currently enrolled in the Green Lantern Project. “The Fortune Society does work and is a great program for those who are looking for a change or something else out there than being in the streets and possibly getting back into the problems you were in before,” Rivera says.

“Ban the box” initiatives

Over the past few years “ban the box” initiatives have been gaining steam. Ban the box seeks to prevent employers from inquiring about a person’s criminal history until after a conditional offer is made. States such as California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Mexico have legislation in place. Cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle and several other cities also have varying ban the box legislation in place for public and/or private employers.

“By banning the box, it gives people a far better opportunity to compete for jobs,” Brooks exclaims.