We tend to see those affected by the criminal justice system as an isolated minority, whose actions have no impact on our lives, but its effects ripple through families, communities and the economy. In the United States, 2.3 million people are incarcerated — a population as big as the entire state of Kansas. Studies find that formerly incarcerated individuals face higher rates of death and are more likely to struggle to obtain housing and medical support soon after release. This also places children who have a parent with a criminal record, which is nearly half the country’s child population, at risk.
In 2012, California began working towards new goals that would help people re-enter their communities and be placed into jobs which would reduce the likelihood of returning to prison. But despite the state’s efforts, 45%-50% of people are re-incarcerated. Why? Here are 5 things to know about life after prison.
The criminal justice system disproportionately affects low-income people of color.Black men and women are incarcerated at 5.1 times the rate of white men and women. In California, 1 in 22 black men will be incarcerated, and 42% of prison populations are Latino at any given time. Once released, black women face the highest unemployment rate at 43% compared to 6.4% of black women in the general population. Individuals from a low-economic background carry the heaviest burden. Entering prison while already experiencing poverty and being released with a heavy prison debt (discussed below) leaves many unable to secure basic needs such as food and housing. According to a recent report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition “People experiencing homelessness are 11 times more likely to face incarceration when compared to the general population, and formerly incarcerated individuals are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public.”
Poverty becomes a black hole while in prison. And it’s difficult to climb out. Contrary to popular belief, prison is not free room and board. Nearly every state has a “pay to stay” policy which charges inmates for daily necessities such as toiletries and food. These fees are stacked on top of multiple legal fees that accumulate before and after prison. Across the country, there are an estimated 10 million people who owe over $50 billion in costs associated with their involvement with the criminal justice system.
In California, there are 58 legal fees and surcharges that can be applied to even minor charges like traffic violations. Paying for daily needs and debt while incarcerated is nearly impossible. In 1979, Congress created PIECP to create more work opportunities for inmates, allowing for private industries to use prison labor to fill openings in positions like manufacturing, shipping and customer support call centers. But if they are able to work, prisoners only earn between $.08 to $.95 an hour, despite their responsibilities being equal to jobs in the general population, so while private-sector corporations profit from using an incarcerated labor force, inmates fall further into the poverty.
Vocational programs in jail don’t guarantee jobs after jail.Over 2,000 inmate firefighters, successfully fought the wildfires that ravaged California in 2018. Despite their qualifications, they won’t be able to join a fire department because they are disqualified from obtaining an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification, required by most counties. This is the case for many other working inmates. Nearly 30% of the workforce across the country now need a license for jobs ranging from barbers to computer technicians. The cost and time to obtain a license is a financial burden for many low-income individuals, and even more so for those with a criminal history. The American Bar Association found that there are more than 27,000 occupational license restrictions that exist in California for former offenders, which greatly limits the types of jobs available to them after prison.
Banning the Box doesn’t completely ban discrimination.The unemployment rate for people with a criminal history is over 27%, higher than the national average during the Great Depression. Prior to 2018, applicants who indicated they had a criminal history on their application had a 50% call-back rate. In 2018 “Ban the Box”, or California Fair Chance Act was enacted to prevent discrimination against ex-offenders. The law prohibits all employers from asking applicants about their criminal history on job applications. While eliminating the criminal history “box” on applications may help applicants get over the initial hurdle of prejudice, employers can still request a criminal history after a conditional offer has been made. Employers can then make an “individualized assessment” and retract the offer if they feel that the applicant’s past conviction would directly affect their job duties. However, Ban the Box legislation doesn't provide a metric for the assessments, leaving applicants vulnerable to potentially arbitrary assessments and biased decisions made by hiring managers.
Hiring ex-offenders is good for the economy.Despite assumptions about hiring ex-offenders, employment studies overwhelmingly show that hiring ex-offenders is beneficial for employers and community alike. Employees with records have higher retention rates than those without criminal histories, saving employers roughly $4,000 per employee in recruitment and training costs. Case studies across several industries continually support the evidence - Total Wine & More found that annual employee turnover was 12.2% lower for employees with criminal records while military personnel with felony records were 33% more likely to be promoted to sergeant than those with no conviction history. Challenging biases about ex-offenders might contribute to decreasing their unemployment rate, but it’s not a standalone solution. The most successful models include company-wide initiatives that are intentional about hiring formerly incarcerated individuals, private-public partnerships with community organization who provide re-entry support services and adopting missions that focus on healing and community. With over 600,000 people being released from incarceration each year, clearing barriers to educational and career opportunities for ex-offenders can greatly contribute to local and national economic growth.
Top Image: Streets of downtown Los Angeles | Still from "Broken Bread"