By: Joe Santangelo, 2016-2017 Work First Fellow
When talking about lifting individuals out of poverty through employment we must take into account those who have criminal backgrounds. In fact, justice-involved individuals make up a growing percentage of the population and many criminology studies show a correlation between poverty and the prison-industrial complex.
It is not surprising that those with criminal backgrounds are often the hardest individuals to place into jobs. Most companies are hesitant to give such individuals a second chance, and many justice-involved individuals see the task of re-entering society as a daunting one. Thus it should be no surprise that national recidivism rates hovers around 67%. That is to say that 67% of ex-offenders will return to the prison system after finishing their sentence. In the city of Baltimore that rate is lower, at 40.5%, but still astronomical when taken into account the cost of housing these individuals in prison, and the emotional and cultural effects recidivism has on families and communities.
The Baltimore Ex-Offender Re-Entry Employment (BERE) Program addresses this issue by focusing specifically on placing ex-offenders into long-lasting and meaningful employment. We believe that work brings purpose and pride, something important for ex-offenders, and the results support this manner of thinking. The recidivism rate amongst BERE participants who complete our program and are placed into employment is 20%, a rate that is less than half of the city of Baltimore’s average, and less than a third of the national average.
For this reason, when I was asked what population I wanted to work with when entering the Work First fellowship, I was drawn towards the BERE program. I knew I was under-educated and under-exposed to issues facing ex-offenders, but what surprised me most were not the barriers to employment, but the earnest desire for employment present in all BERE participants. Many of my friends and associates had pre-conceived notions of what type of person an ex-offender is: lazy, dangerous, a detriment to society. Through my work with this program I have recognized that this stigma is not only untrue, but affects ex-offenders, who often recognize and internalize these thoughts. Every ex-offender I have met possesses a drive to move forward and function in society that both impresses and humbles me daily.
Listening to ex-offender stories also highlights the injustices in our criminal justice system. Many individuals I have talked to were imprisoned for drug related charges, one individual even being charged for drinking alcohol on the steps to their apartment building. Many of us know people who committed more egregious violations that were not met with handcuffs. This is not to excuse illegal behavior, simply to demonstrate the ties between impoverished neighborhoods and increased arrest rates. It is important to recognize that the majority of ex-offenders are not hardened criminals, but individuals who have made a mistake in the past and are trying to get their lives back on track.
The Baltimore Ex-Offender Re-Entry Employment Program takes this view, and I believe it is one of the main reasons we are successful in employment placement. This needs to be taken a step further both in Baltimore and the larger American society. By stigmatizing our ex-offender population we are hurting their chances to succeed and thus hurting our own society. Employers must welcome ex-offenders back and give them more opportunities to provide for themselves and their families. A more successful ex-offender population means less recidivism, which means less money entering the prison system and a more prosperous society.