Something to be embarrassed about: the U.S. incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other country in the world. With state budget cuts and calls to reduce the prison population, the issue of employing former inmates becomes problematic, especially at a time when the economy is still lagging.
But the U.S. Department of Labor is announcing grants of $20.5 million for nonprofits to create opportunities for the formerly incarcerated who are returning to high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods.
Because Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in the prison population, this effort to fund programs for former inmates becomes even more crucial. A 2008 report found that Latinos are incarcerated at more than twice the rate of Whites; Blacks are incarcerated at six times the rate of Whites.
Harsh minimum sentences and years of tough on crime policies have devastated communities of color beyond the time a former inmate has finished serving his sentence. Felony records are a big obstacle for people returning to their communities from prison.
While the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has a policy that prohibits employers from imposing across the board hiring bans based on criminal records, over 60 percent of large employers have indicated that they would “probably not” or “definitely not” consider hiring someone if they learned of the prospective employee’s criminal record.
A survey of 550 formerly incarcerated men and women by the Council for Court Excellence, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit, nonpartisan civic organization from 2011, found that nearly half of them were unemployed and that most of them did not receive assistance in job seeking. Without some kind of support, recidivism can become an issue, and for communities that are already on shaky economic ground, the cycle of unemployment, high crime, and a lack of investment continues.
The Department of Labor’s $20.5 million investment in 18 nonprofits in 18 states represents the fifth round of funding in the department’s Reintegration of Ex-Offenders-Adult program. Thus far, more than $98 million has been awarded.
In a statement released on Wednesday, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis argued that “a strong support network is the key for formerly incarcerated individuals to successfully transition back to their communities. The federal grants announced today will help to establish this network, while also providing job training to ensure long-term stability and success.”
These Department of Labor grants will be welcome to help alleviate the problem of unemployed former prisoners. Just this week in Indiana, budget cuts wiped out the prison education program that Ball State University runs. About 1,000 offenders in Indiana are enrolled in the Ball State program. And although the public might not have much inclination to pay for education for prisoners, the director of education at the Department of Corrections in Indiana said that a college degree was “an important tool to prepare for successful re-entry” and that unemployed ex-offenders were twice as likely to return to prison compared to their counterparts who were working.