San Diego Union Tribune

Re-entry Employment for Incarcerated Workers

As unemployment rates go down, the need to source talent from unexpected places continues to be a priority.

While employing citizens returning from incarceration can be an uncomfortable topic for some employers, it is an important topic both from a bottom-line perspective and from the perspective of a community wanting to ensure all citizens can lead safe, productive lives.

n our region, most research shows that there is more than a 50 percent chance of going back to jail in 3-5 years after being released. The state of California estimates it costs taxpayers over $71,000 a year to incarcerate an individual, which is more than it costs to send a student to Harvard including room and board.

These dire statistics demonstrate the necessity to focus on this issue both as a taxpayer and community member. But how can we support returning citizens in rebuilding their lives instead of returning to past behavior that led to incarceration?

Employment is a critical factor to successful re-entry. When an ex-offender finds and retains work, the likelihood of re-offending is significantly reduced. Unfortunately, the chance of an ex-offender finding employment is uncertain at best.

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, said “When someone leaves a county or local jail, very real barriers too often stand in their way as they try to find a career and lead a successful life. We have to do more to help them land on their feet as they return to their communities.”

I agree. Ensuring employment as a means of breaking the cycle of recidivism is a commonsense approach that strengthens communities, businesses and improves public safety.

As the board chair for the San Diego Workforce Partnership (SDWP), I have been involved in supporting an innovative partnership between SDWP, Second Chance, and the County Sheriff’s and Probation departments that has resulted in the creation of career centers within East Mesa Reentry Facility (EMRF) and the Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility (Las Colinas).

The two-year program, called Reentry Works San Diego, provides 1,000 justice-involved individuals with critical services including: pre- and post-release employment readiness, assessments, résumé assistance, interview skills, entrepreneurial workshops, mentorship, a computer lab for job searching, placement services, and access to support and training post-release. Reentry Works staff not only focus on employment skills but also connecting participants to childcare and other support services prior to release. Participants are learning invaluable job skills a building a resume so that skills learned behind bars can translate to meet the needs of our local economy.

Programs like this show San Diego is on the right course. Initial results show a significant reduction of recidivism for participants of the career center. Remarkably, only 9 percent of those individuals who have participated in pre- and post-release activities have returned to jail compared to the estimated 50 percent seen across the region. At an investment of roughly only $850 per program participant, the return on investment has proven to be invaluable.

While San Diego’s efforts should be applauded, solving the challenge of effectively reconnecting the justice-involved back into our communities, more must be done. There are approximately 8,000 inmates in county correctional facilities. Every year, 95 percent of that 8,000 will re-enter our neighborhoods.

Community and business leaders must come together to ensure all returning citizens have a chance at meaningful employment. Imagine the impact to San Diego, to the family members of those incarcerated and the individuals who have done their time and are ready to become productive members of our region.

In early September, Governor Jerry Brown brought this message to San Diego speaking at an event with SDWP highlighting this program and the economic benefits to employers from hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds. I join Governor Brown in calling upon our region’s employers to find the potential in ex-offenders who can add value to the workforce and to hire them.

I am very optimistic that these smart investments will increase successful reentry and employment rates, improve public safety, and build stronger neighborhoods.

We need the public and private sector in our region to fund programs like these and join the success and help make this vision a reality. We need employers to take a chance on these returning citizens and offer them careers. Public funds are just a start. Our community now needs to embrace and invest in this model. Reentry Works really works.

Breaking the cycle of recidivism and connecting justice-involved individuals to employment has been proven to work. There are no easy fixes. Rebuilding a life after release is challenging, but we all benefit when more individuals remain with their families, get jobs, and rejoin our community.