Ex-Prisoners Face Headwinds as Job Seekers, Even as Openings Abound

on Jul6
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The U.S. unemployment rate is hovering near lows unseen since the 1960s. A few months ago, there were roughly two job openings for every unemployed person in the country. Many standard economic models suggest that almost everyone who wants a job has a job.

Yet the broad group of Americans with records of imprisonment or arrests — a population disproportionately male and Black — have remarkably high jobless rates. Over 60 percent of those leaving prison are unemployed a year later, seeking work but not finding it.

That harsh reality has endured even as the social upheaval after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 gave a boost to a “second-chance hiring” movement in corporate America aimed at hiring candidates with criminal records. And the gap exists even as unemployment for minority groups overall is near record lows.

Many states have “ban the box” laws barring initial job applications from asking if candidates have a criminal history. But a prison record can block progress after interviews or background checks — especially for convictions more serious than nonviolent drug offenses, which have undergone a more sympathetic public reappraisal in recent years.

For economic policymakers, a persistent demand for labor paired with a persistent lack of work for many former prisoners presents an awkward conundrum: A wide swath of citizens have re-entered society — after a quadrupling of the U.S. incarceration rate over 40 years — but the nation’s economic engine is not sure what to with them.

“These are people that are trying to compete in the legal labor market,” said Shawn D. Bushway, an economist and criminologist at the RAND Corporation, who estimates that 64 percent of unemployed men have been arrested and that 46 percent have been convicted. “You can’t say, ‘Well, these people are just lazy’ or ‘These people really don’t really want to work.’”

In a research paper, Mr. Bushway and his co-authors found that when former prisoners do land a job, “they earn significantly less than their counterparts without criminal history records, making the middle class ever less reachable for unemployed men” in this cohort.

One challenge is a longstanding presumption that people with criminal records are more likely to be difficult, untrustworthy or unreliable employees. DeAnna Hoskins, the president of JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit group focused on decreasing incarceration, said she challenged that concern as overblown. Moreover, she said, locking former prisoners out of the job market can foster “survival crime” by people looking to make ends meet.

One way shown to stem recidivism — a relapse into criminal behavior — is deepening investments in prison education so former prisoners re-enter society with more demonstrable, valuable skills.

In May 2016, Jabarre Jarrett of Ripley, Tenn., a small town about 15 miles east of the Mississippi River, got a call from his sister. She told Mr. Jarrett, then 27, that her boyfriend had assaulted her. Frustrated and angry, Mr. Jarrett drove to see her. A verbal altercation with the man, who was armed, turned physical, and Mr. Jarrett, also armed, fatally shot him.

Mr. Jarrett pleaded guilty to a manslaughter charge and was given a 12-year sentence. Released in 2021 after his term was reduced for good conduct, he found that he was still paying for his crime, in a literal sense.

Housing was hard to get. Mr. Jarrett owed child support. And despite a vibrant labor market, he struggled to piece together a living, finding employers hesitant to offer him full-time work that paid enough to cover his bills.

“One night somebody from my past called me, man, and they offered me an opportunity to get back in the game,” he said — with options like “running scams, selling drugs, you name it.”

One reason he resisted, Mr. Jarrett said, was his decision a few weeks earlier to sign up for a program called Persevere, out of curiosity.

Persevere, a nonprofit group funded by federal grants, private donations and state partnerships, focuses on halting recidivism in part through technical job training, offering software development courses to those recently freed from prison and those within three years of release. It pairs that effort with “wraparound services” — including mentorship, transportation, temporary housing and access to basic necessities — to address financial and mental health needs.

For Mr. Jarrett, that network helped solidify a life change. When he got off the phone call with the old friend, he called a mental health counselor at Persevere.

“I said, ‘Man, is this real?’” he recalled. “I told him, ‘I got child support, I just lost another job, and somebody offered me an opportunity to make money right now, and I want to turn it down so bad, but I don’t have no hope.’” The counselor talked him through the moment and discussed less risky ways to get through the next months.

In September, after his yearlong training period, Mr. Jarrett became a full-time web developer for Persevere itself, making about $55,000 a year — a stroke of luck, he said, until he builds enough experience for a more senior role at a private-sector employer.

Persevere is relatively small (active in six states) and rare in its design. Yet its program claims extraordinary success compared with conventional approaches.

Dant’e Cottingham got a life sentence at 17 for first-degree intentional homicide in the killing of another man and served 27 years. While in prison, he completed a paralegal program. As a job seeker afterward, he battled the stigma of a criminal record — an obstacle he is trying to help others overcome.

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