Unemployment crisis for ex-inmates drags on the economy amid push for prison reform
With the largest prison population in the world, the United States has a generally unacknowledged unemployment crisis that is not only devastating individuals and their families but taking a toll on the economy.
In the last quarter, the U.S. economy grew at a pace of 4.1 percent. July marked the 94th month of continuous job growth and saw more people returning to the labor force after dropping out. But for the millions of prime working-age adults who have a criminal conviction, the economic picture has been anything but rosy.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump hosted a roundtable discussion on prison reform with state officials where jobs and the economy were at the top of the agenda.
For the past two weeks, Trump has huddled with stakeholders to push his prison reform bill, which passed the House last month and is currently being considered in the Senate. Among the main elements in the First Step Act is requiring federal prisons to provide education and vocational training, so people who served their time can get a second chance to make a life for themselves.
Without question, the addition of millions of jobs over the past year and historically low 3.9 percent unemployment is a positive sign for America's workers. According to the president, it is also a promising sign for millions of Americans who have a criminal record.
"We're creating so many jobs that former inmates, for the first time, are really getting a shot at it," Trump told attendees of the prison reform roundtable convened at his Bedminster, New Jersey resort.
Without missing an opportunity to tout the latest upbeat economic figures, the president said employers are now recruiting workers that were previously overlooked. "People that have been in prison, and they come out and they're having a hard time, they're not having such a hard time anymore," he said.
"Superficially, I think the president has put his finger on the pulse of a difficult issue," said Ames Grawert, senior counsel in the Brennan Center's Justice Program. Though skeptical the tight labor market is already impacting employment for the formerly incarcerated, it is a population that desperately needs to be helped, he emphasized.
CRISIS LEVELS OF POST-PRISON UNEMPLOYMENT
Overwhelming evidence suggests the devastating impact an arrest or conviction has on a person's job prospects. At the same time, employment has been the top factor in whether or not a person reintegrates into society or returns to prison.
Each year, more than 600,000 people transition from prison back to their communities. Between 60 and 75 percent of that population remains unemployed for up to a year after they are released. It can be even more challenging for women seeking jobs in industries that perform more background checks, like caregiving and retail.
For those who do find work, it's often low-wage. According to one study, a prison sentence can cut a person's wages by up to 20 percent.
The stigma associated with a prior conviction and some companies applying blanket policies against hiring someone with a criminal background has often made it impossible for people to get back on their feet and back into the workforce after paying their debt to society.
However, the scope of that unemployment crisis was only documented for the first time in a July study by the Prison Policy Institute, which found the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people was higher than 27 percent. According to the analysis, that population is at least five times more likely to be unemployed than the general population, with jobless rates higher than the Great Depression.
On Thursday, Grawert previewed to Circa a long-running Brennan Center study of the economic impact of America's criminal justice system. Early findings suggest hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses as a result of people being sidelined from the workforce by a criminal conviction.
"We're confident," Grawert said, "that if you total-up a good estimate of how much these people could be earning, but for the fact that they suffer incarceration, it's on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars in lost economic productivity."
This economic impact has been recognized for many years in academic circles but has not always gotten the attention of policymakers. Grawert said he is encouraged that the Trump administration and Congress are beginning to address the problem with the First Step Act.
FIRST STEP, 'SECOND CHANCE'
The jobs element in the Trump administration's First Step bill essentially requires federal prisons to allocate resources to ensure inmates have access to job training programs and rehabilitative services throughout their incarceration.
Since President Trump first began pushing for prison reform earlier this year, he has argued for reforms that give former prisoners a "second chance" to rejoin society and avoid the path that leads back to incarceration.
"America is a nation that believes in second chances," Trump said at a prison reform conference earlier this year, stressing that "hire American" means getting former inmates back into the workforce and gainfully employed. Vocational training has been at the core of that and the president's reform package.
The House version of the First Step Act, which passed in May, essentially requires the Bureau of Prisons to provide "all prisoners" with the opportunity to participate in job training programs or other evidence-based recidivism reduction programs. Though the bill has been criticized for not offering equal access to every inmate, the language specifically prioritizes medium risk and high-risk prisoners, ensuring they have equal access to the types of programs given to minimum-risk and low-risk prisoners.
"If we want to keep these people out of prison and give them the support they need to be productive members of society, preparing them to reenter the workforce is the single most important thing we can do," stressed Clark Neily, vice president for criminal justice at the Cato Institute. The alternative is untenable, he noted, as prisoners often facing excessively lengthy sentences lose whatever vocational skills they may have had.
While the actual unemployment figures for former prisoners are sparse, there are factors in the economy may work for the population of former prisoners. For the third straight month, the tight labor market and growing economy have led to the unprecedented situation of more job openings than people looking for jobs.
If given the right opportunities while serving out their sentence, Neily is optimistic that more employers will find a good match among former inmates. "Many of these recently released prisoners are good candidates," he noted. "Many of them really do want to get out and start over. They don't want to go back to prison."
When the Senate returns to Washington next week, the will continue work on the First Step Act. Some lawmakers are looking to incorporate sentencing reform to the bill, including a measure to shorten mandatory minimum drug sentences and reduce the "three strikes" life sentence to 25 years. President Trump indicated Thursday that he is open to these amendments.
It is not clear whether Senators intend to strengthen or change the job training requirements in the House-passed bill.