Just over a month ago, leaders from the Democratic Party made the trip to the White House to discuss a possible trillion-dollar infrastructure bill aimed at repairing the nation’s aging roads and highways, outdated electrical power lines and grids, water systems, and complex and malfunctioning public transportation systems.
Those talks collapsed as soon as they began, much to the frustration of most Americans.
When the president and congressional leaders walked away from the talks, the major losers, apart from America’s dangerously decaying infrastructure, were the millions of people who could find employment in jobs that would be created in order to get the work done — including an estimated 5 million formerly incarcerated men and women for whom finding work remains a discouraging, uphill battle.
A 2018 report by the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative shows the unemployment rate for the formerly incarcerated at 27%, the highest unemployment rate for a subset of working age people in our nation’s history, including during the Great Depression. This unemployment rate will likely grow, given the annual release from state and federal prisons of an estimated 650,000 people. Without appropriate job opportunities, many of these folks will likely return to prison.
According to the National Institute of Justice, an estimated 68% of released prisoners were arrested within three years of their release from prison; 79% were re-arrested within six years, and 83% were re-arrested within nine years. With the annual cost of housing and caring for an inmate at about $40,000, we would do well to divert prison funding to programs like infrastructure that keep people out of prison while helping them become productive, tax-paying members of society.
Washington had this in mind when Congress passed the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act (First Step Act), a bill designed to roll back punitive sentencing laws and create more funding for community re-entry programs, which the president signed into law in December 2018.
Indeed, this is a good first step. But jobs, especially the millions that could result from this infrastructure bill, could be appropriate for the formerly incarcerated and would ensure the success of the First Step Act. My organization, which works with young people six months prior to their release from prison and for up to one year after their release to help successfully reintegrate them back to their communities, has seen the way employment changes the trajectory of a person’s life once they leave prison.
Each day they take part in an array of programs offered by our pre-release community re-entry program, including life skills training, work-readiness and job training programs, and individual case management. They also learn important “soft skills” training — proper behavior in a workplace, drafting a resume, developing interview skills and developing financial literacy. Moreover, since our program is not mandated for those leaving prison, we see the active enthusiasm of our participants who want to work, reconnect with their families, and forge a path to success.
Increasingly, large corporations like Koch Industries, a company that will play a significant role in infrastructure projects under the president’s plan, have teamed up with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other nationwide companies to support efforts to hire the formerly incarcerated people by lobbying state and federal legislators to require employers to remove the box indicating if prospective hires have a criminal background. According to the National Employment Law Project, 33 U.S. states and more than 150 cities and counties require ban-the-box or similar policies for public-sector jobs, and laws in 11 states and 17 cities no longer permit businesses to ask about an applicant’s prior criminal history.
It’s time for Washington to stop the bickering and get behind an effort to put infrastructure back on track. The benefits of an infrastructure bill go way beyond repairing bridges and highways — an even bigger benefit will be the bridges to employment for those who struggle to find work once they come out of prison.
Mike Duggan is executive director of Domus Kids in Stamford, Conn., an organization that works with young people, including the formerly incarcerated.