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How hard is it to get a job once you’re released from prison? It’s a question that looks more relevant than ever given the ever-present labor shortages in the economy. While most job seekers are having an easier time finding opportunities, the reality among formerly incarcerated people is different: it’s not easy at all.
There are a variety of reasons why employers are less likely to consider people with criminal records for a job, but the results speak for themselves: poverty and unemployment are much higher than average among formerly incarcerated people. According to a new study commissioned by the non-profit REFORM Alliance and the Columbia Justice Lab, the poverty rate among people on community supervision was nearly double the normal rate while the unemployment rate was triple.
As part of our Economic Pulse series, “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio spoke with Robert Rooks, CEO of the REFORM Alliance, which works to support criminal justice reform. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: I used to work for a boss who would say all the time, we need to build for success. When it comes to job opportunities for people getting out of prison do we build for success?
Robert Rooks: Unfortunately, David, we did not. There’s much [that has] been talked about regarding our labor shortage. And we absolutely do have a labor shortage. But I would argue that we also have a second-chance shortage. Jobs mean so much for people with felony convictions coming out of the criminal justice system. Jobs mean strong family, safe communities, and a healthy economy. But too many people are locked out simply because at some point in their lives, in their past, they were either locked up or were involved in the criminal justice system. And so at REFORM Alliance, we’re working every day to ensure that people coming out of the system come out into a community that helps them get jobs so they can provide for their families. Because we know jobs feed families, jobs provide housing and provide health care and childcare.
Brancaccio: You mentioned the strong job market and all these employers complaining, there aren’t enough people to hire. That must have helped you make that case as you try to persuade more employers to hire people with prison records.
Rooks: Even before the pandemic, formerly incarcerated people had an unemployment rate of around 27%. That’s higher than at any point in the Great Depression. People who have been incarcerated lose up to $500,000 in earnings over their lifetimes. And being released from incarceration, people often owe upwards of about $13,000, on average, in court fees and fines. So we’re dealing with a structural problem, David, and we believe that in this current market, where there’s a labor shortage, where people, employers, are looking for people to hire, that is a built-in ready-to-go group of folks that want to work. And what we also know is that when formerly incarcerated people or people who’ve been involved in the justice system get hired, they’re often your best employees. Employer after employer who has made a commitment to hire someone out of the justice system has talked about how they’re their most committed employee and their hardest working employee because they have an opportunity that others didn’t give them.
Brancaccio: You must wrestle with this with employers as you try to make that case. And employers are legally bound to be sure their workplaces are safe for their employees. And they do the background check, and they see that criminal record. And that must be where the conversation too, often in your view, stops.
Rooks: Yeah, that just shouldn’t be the case. But unfortunately, David, you’re right. It is. Too many employers stop at the background check. The felony in our country is used like a deck of cards, unfortunately, and it keeps too many people out of the system. We need to ensure that once someone serves their time, that they’ve paid their debt to society, that they get a chance to work, and that they get a chance to provide for their families. And the issue of safety is not part of this conversation. The issue of safety was addressed when the person was released. People have paid their debt to society, now it’s time for them to work. And so we want employers to roll up their sleeves to join the rest of us as we work to get people, everyone, back to work, including this population of folks.
Brancaccio: You mentioned the debt that people often have paying court fees and so forth. I talked to a formerly incarcerated person who was telling me that there are sometimes fees that represent a decent percentage of his salary that he had to pay upon his release to pay the costs of his own parole. Is that common?
Rooks: That’s very, very common. When people are under supervision, they are often charged for that supervision. This is an issue that’s impacted me personally, I had a nephew who was on probation. My sister and I had to pay upwards of $600 a month to help him while he was on this supervision, to pay for his supervision fees. It’s a taxing process. And oftentimes when people come out of the system, they have these fees that they have to pay, whether it be court or for [being] under supervision, and it is crippling to them. So they go to work yet but 50% to 60% of what they make is taken out and that’s undermining their ability to provide for their families [and] communities.
Brancaccio: What about if some employers are reluctant to hire? What about entrepreneurship? I mean, through online [options], there may be more options for self-employment. But the thing is, you often need startup capital for even a smaller business and access to capital. Could be a challenge.
Rooks: I’m so glad you mentioned this. This is an area of work or growth, I would say, that just wasn’t available to many people 10 years ago. But online entrepreneurship, e-commerce has provided new opportunities for everyone, including people with felonies on their record, or people on probation or parole. And I’m excited about that because this is an opportunity for people to make money and earn, provide for their families and communities while at home. And they can set their own schedule based on what their needs are. And so we try to uplift entrepreneurship alongside career placement and our worker reform because we want everyone to be able to work and provide for their communities.
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