By Mary Gatta
The U.S. criminal justice system is in crisis. With approximately 2 million persons incarcerated, this $74 billion annual expenditure is not economically self-sustaining, nor have results proven successful.
Every year, prisons release approximately 650,000 inmates. Within the first year, more than half of persons released are unable to secure identification, meaningful employment, and earn enough legal income to survive. The most recent Justice Department national survey estimated that within three years of their release from prison, two-thirds of ex-offenders are arrested for a new crime.
Yet according to the results of a new study from the Manhattan Institute, certain programs have proved successful in preventing such an outcome. The ultimate answer: arriving at steady employment with pathways to economic security. Employment that offers a meaningful schedule, health benefits, and consistent life patterns.
Securing this employment, however, is not easy.
First, clients need a license. Licenses are typically suspended during incarceration, with substantial fines incurred against the license post release. If fines are not paid, ongoing license suspension and a potential bench warrant is issued.
At the New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC) — a pro bono legal assistance program with the Motor Vehicles Commission and the Young Lawyer’s Division of the NJ State Bar Association — assists clients to restore their licenses.
A driver’s license enables a client to enroll in the Laborer’s or Carpenter’s Apprenticeship Program, secure a Commercial Driver’s License, as well as obtain medical and psychiatric care, housing, food stamps, and life’s necessities.
Second, clients need to address outstanding municipal court issues. Prior to employment, clients should take care of any traffic violations, family court or child support orders, debt and legal violations. Through a network of over 63 pro bono attorneys who represent NJRC clients statewide, the group petitions the court to monetize prison time as a means of “paying” outstanding municipal court financial obligations.
Third, apply treatment for substance abuse in transitional housing. This has been central to the success of the exceptional Hudson County Community Reintegration Program. Upon release from jail, clients are placed into transitional sober housing, where the goal is to help them achieve and maintain sobriety — a stabilization process typically between 60 to 90 days — which staff members have learned is crucial if any progress is to be achieved.
The New Jersey Reentry Corporation at Jersey City Employment and Training Program (JCETP) provides ongoing Intensive Outpatient Treatment (IOP) for addiction through Integrity House and enrollment through the Affordable Care Act at a Federally Qualified Health Center.
Fourth, develop a customized client employment plan. While addressing health, housing, and legal challenges, the NJRC begins to do just that. Because of historically lower client educational achievement, the NJRC provides access to the Workforce Learning Link, the state funded GED software and on-site tutoring to secure clients’ GED/TASC testing. Clients are also administered the Test of Adult Basic Education to establish a proficiency benchmark to determine appropriate training avenues.
Further, the organization customizes targeted federal, state, and private training dollars to target meaningful job opportunities.
Does it work?
The Manhattan Institute study found that, from January 2016 to July 2016, the NJRC certified 383 clients in general labor jobs, 227 in warehousing/ manufacturing, 101 in food services, 82 in sales, and 43 in transportation. In addition, through the U.S. Department of Transportation “Ladders of Opportunity” grant, the Jersey City program trained 177 clients for a variety of jobs in NJ Transit, Department of Public Works, and for entry into building-trade unions (as Laborers, Carpenters, Masons, Painters, and Pipefitters).
The program held a 58 percent employment-placement rate, which arguably impacted its 19.7 percent recidivism rate for the same period — earning it praise from the DOJ.
The program has now been replicated throughout the state.
Recent changes of laws have helped. State Sen. Sandra B. Cunningham’s “Ban the Box” and sponsorship of expungement reforms that are supported by the Gov. Chris Christie, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto will make securing employment easier.
Yet, it is the growing recognition and support by the private sector and business trades association advocacy that have made all the difference.
Government programs and nonprofit case management prepares and manages to the starting line.
Yet, as Christie recently said, the end game is a job that offers a pathway to security, that’s where we need the private sector.
Mary Gatta is an associate professor of sociology at CUNY-Stella and Charles Guttman Community College and co-author of the new Manhattan Institute report, “Identifying Effective Prisoner Reentry Strategies.”