What’s Needed to Unlock Job Opportunities for Ex-Prisoners in DC?

An estimated 60,000 District of Columbia residents have a criminal record. That’s about a tenth of the entire local population, babes in arms included.

The source of this eye-popping figure is a recent report by the Council for Court Excellence. It’s about one of the “collateral consequences” of a criminal record — lack of employment opportunities for “previously incarcerated persons” in D.C.

The report summarizes the results of a survey of 550 such persons and a separate survey of 20 local employers. It includes some modest recommendations for action by the DC Council and criminal justice agencies, both local and federal.

A worthy effort, but I don’t think the recommendations get to the core problems. These seem to me to fall into three big buckets.

Criminal Justice Policy

Surely we’re incarcerating far too many people. The Council indicates as much when it cites national figures, but it’s silent on the egregiously high percent of District resident who’ve spent time behind bars.

According to recent estimates, it says, between 12.3 million and 13.8 million people in the U.S. have a felony conviction. On the high end, that’s about 5.9% of the adult population.

The rate for District adults is nearly 12%, assuming that the Council’s criminal record figure is comparable to what it reports for the nation as a whole.

No matter how good re-entry programs are, ex-prisoners will have a hard time overcoming “collateral consequences” like unemployment. What if we didn’t imprison so many people to begin with?

Education and Training

The Council begins with what seems an altogether reasonable premise. Ex-felons are less likely to commit further crimes if they’re on a path toward economic security.

About 46% of the survey respondents surely weren’t, since they had no jobs at all. But about the same percent were unemployed before they were incarcerated.

So it seems reasonable to think that the high unemployment rate among ex-prisoners — and perhaps the incarceration rate itself — reflect problems in our education system.

How many of the survey respondents, I wonder, dropped out of school because they couldn’t master the skills they needed to get promoted to the next grade — or found the education they were getting profoundly irrelevant?

This isn’t to say that people without a decent education inevitably turn to crime. Nor, for that matter, that most of the survey respondents were dropouts, though we can guess a fair number were (see below).

Many could have found, as many high school graduates do, that living wage jobs in our local labor market demand more advanced skills and/or formal education.

The Council recommends, among other things, more training to prepare prisoners for in-demand jobs — specifically, as office clerks, customer service representatives and food preparation workers.

It indirectly indicates that most prisoners don’t have the education that higher-paying in-demand jobs require. But the low-skill jobs don’t pay enough to cover the costs of living in the District — housing in particular.

Seems then that solutions would have to lie beyond prison walls and involve a much wider range of actors and players than the Council’s proposals address.

Employer Bias

The Council’s report makes one wonder how much training would matter anyway.

About 65% of the ex-prisoners surveyed received a job training certificate, GED or higher education credential while behind bars. Only 2% more of them were employed than those who hadn’t gotten any of these.

The point spread was exactly the same for those who’d gotten and not gotten training after their release.

The key here are other survey results.

A full 80% of the ex-prisoners surveyed said that when looking for work, they were asked about their criminal records “all the time.”

Reported results from the employer survey don’t tell us how many screen out applicants with a criminal record. We do know, however, that only a third had hired or would hire an ex-prisoner “should the opportunity arise.”

Half the employers agreed that certain policy and program changes would make them more predisposed to hire ex-prisoners — not necessarily to hire them, mind you, but influenced in that direction.

Among them is protection from legal liability, i.e.,  immunity from lawsuits claiming “negligent hiring” if an ex-prisoner on their payroll committed another crime in the course of his/her duties.

The Council recommends this. Yet it notes that it could find only five such lawsuits against District employers in the last several decades.

Says to me that we’ve got an irrational bias here — either an unfounded fear or a cover for other prejudicial assumptions.

DC Councilmember Marion Barry has introduced a bill that would make “past arrests and convictions” a prohibited basis for discrimination under the D.C. Human Rights Act.

Lots of reservations about this — and not all coming from the Chamber of Commerce and the businesses it represents.

Enough so I think we can be pretty confident that local employers will be able to go on discriminating against job applicants with criminal records for the indefinite future.

What would get them to do otherwise?


One Response to What’s Needed to Unlock Job Opportunities for Ex-Prisoners in DC?

  1. Plenty of food for thought, Kathryn! I’m still trying to process the national 6% incarcerated figure. Holy cow. And then to take that micro–to DC and know it’s 12%! I’m not a numbers person but those numbers get my attention. Opportunities for those who’ve done their time need to be (one of millions) priority.

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