It takes a while for it to sink in. We are at the White House. But not for the tour that anyone can secure through our state senator or congressperson. We’ve been personally invited by the Office of the President of the United States to celebrate the passage of the First Step Act—the most aggressive criminal justice reform legislation of our time. It is both a surreal and humbling experience (you can read a transcript of the event here).
What strikes us most about this moment is how truly bipartisan it is. The voices calling for and working towards criminal justice reform span political parties and extend far outside the political arena. They are politicians, business leaders, philanthropists, and everyday people who recognize that as a country we can and must do better. Because of this, we are starting to achieve the right outcomes for people like Troy Powell, who spoke at the White House event. In 2004, Troy was sentenced to 20 years for a drug offense. During his 15 years in federal prison, Troy took courses and worked as an electrician. Nine days following the passage of the First Step Act, Troy was released from prison and hired at Boone Lumber in Lenoir, North Carolina where he is saving money and starting to rebuild his life.
We need a lot more of this.
To get there, we all need to recognize that the state of our criminal justice system is an American problem and is one of the most pressing issues facing our country today. To really solve for it, we must continue to set aside our political differences and focus on what is good and right and just for all Americans. And while the First Step Act started us down the right path, we must continue to push further, with government and business working in lockstep to enact a Second Step Act that helps women and men with criminal backgrounds secure meaningful employment, enabling them and their families to thrive.
Looking at the Minimum Wage
There is no job that should ever be demeaned. If people are making an honest wage, it’s a good thing. But we need to be realistic. Low or minimum wage jobs do not provide adequately or adjust for cost of living increases. For example, in Maricopa County in Arizona, the living hourly wage for one adult is $11.90. For one adult and one child, it’s $23.16. For a family of four with two children and one adult working, it’s $26.16 – via MIT Living Wage Calculator.
Now consider that the Arizona state minimum wage is $11.00 per hour. What this means is that anyone earning below the living wage (which is everyone making minimum wage) must also rely on government subsidies or find a second job just to make ends barely meet. This is a burden on the individual and their family, taxpayers and our economy overall.
So, when we talk about advancing criminal justice reform with a greater focus on getting women and men with criminal backgrounds back to work, we have to look for job opportunities that lead to growth and development. Not doing so, as Michelle recently wrote in her response to the National Review, is the equivalent of placing a Band-Aid on an amputation that only serves to keep this community right where they are today: on the lower rung of the economic ladder. Here’s how this works out for society.
A Prison Model without ROI
According to research by the Society for Human Resources Management, close to 700,000 women and men leave prison and reenter society in any given year, and they all need employment. Yet a staggering 75% will remain unemployed one year after release (joblessness, by the way, is the biggest predictor in recidivism).
Consider this now: many of those being released have spent on average 5-10 years in prison. That’s a lot of time, yet the learning opportunities behind bars is limited. In fact, the Marshall Project recently shared survey results that reveal big gaps in teaching reentry skills. Is it any wonder then the National Institute of Justice reports that 67.8% of released prisoners are rearrested within three years? That number shoots up to 76.6% after five years. With the average cost to house a prisoner at $31,000 per inmate, per year and approximately 2.3 million people currently incarcerated nationwide, it’s safe to say our current model is failing, creating little more than a revolving prison door and leaving taxpayers with a $71B annual bill to pay for it all.
I think we’re all familiar with Einstein’s definition of insanity. If we want different results, we need a different approach. In this case, we need to enact criminal justice reform that delivers a greater return on investment and actually solves a problem.
Transforming Prisons into Workforce Development Centers
Close your eyes and think about a college campus: there are buildings marked for engineering; computer science; architecture; technology; agriculture, environment and food; etc. Now imagine bringing this model to a prison, giving women and men while they’re incarcerated the opportunity to learn marketable business skills and trades (including vocational and technical). There’s certainly an economic need for doing so. Consider the fact that individuals who participate in any type of educational program while in prison are 43% less likely to return to prison – via Center for American Progress. That’s money saved that can be reinvested back into the communities where it can serve the greater good in more meaningful, impactful ways. There’s also a business need. Approximately 7.3 million jobs opened in December but only 6.3 million people were looking for work. That gap is widening with 10,000 baby boomers retiring from professional positions each day.
So right now, there are high paying trade jobs not being filled – via NPR, while businesses all over the world continue to struggle to address the skills gap – via Forbes. We need to see the talent that sits behind prison walls and start making the right investments, as we’ve seen with programs like The Last Mile, an organization upskilling residents at California’s San Quentin State Prison through technology, and from our own work at Televerde and Arouet Foundation.
We have a huge opportunity in front of us to address multiple issues at once–criminal justice reform, mass incarceration, skills gap (trade and business) and the knowledge worker shortage–if we all commit to looking at the people we incarcerate differently. We need to stop devaluing their worth and their abilities. We need to see them beyond their worst mistake and give them access to the education and skills training they need to find and fulfill their human potential.
And we can’t forget the reentry programs. They need to be enhanced with life skills training, financial planning, access to continued education (#RestorePell), personalized mental health counseling and drug use support, family reintegration services, mentorship, and job readiness/placement. Programs also need to continue for at least two years following release to help reduce recidivism past the one-, three- and five-year marks, which are the highest points for reconvictions.
This is what the Second Step Act needs to look like. It’s smart, thoughtful criminal justice reform that delivers immediate and long-term return on investment for women and men with criminal backgrounds and their families, our communities and the economy.
One of our most favorite quotes comes from Nelson Mandela who stated, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
Let’s commit to going even deeper on criminal justice reform so we can enable lives to truly thrive post-incarceration.
Michelle Cirocco is the Chief Social Responsibility Officer for Televerde, a sales and marketing solutions company helps global B2B organizations generate demand and accelerate sales. Since 1994, the company has provided education and career opportunities to incarcerated women both while in prison and after release. Learn more.
Alison Rapping is the CEO of Arouet Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides education assistance, workforce development, and job opportunities to incarcerated women in Arizona. Learn more.