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James was a convicted armed robber. After his release from prison in 2003, he foundered for months and wound up back in prison. When he got out of prison again in 2007, James vowed to turn his life around. The first step was getting a job, first at Starbucks and then at a cleaning company. The owner is now training James to open his own business, where he hopes to offer similar opportunities to people like him who have criminal records.
As the previously incarcerated in our city know all too well, finding a job is essential to getting their lives back on track. But they face many obstacles. My organization, the Council for Court Excellence, recently conducted a survey of 550 District residents who had served time in prison or jail and found that 46 percent were unemployed.
In their job searches, most ran up against constant roadblocks; 77 percent said they received no assistance from "anyone at the facility" in helping them look for a job. More than that, a full 80 percent said they were asked "all the time" about their criminal records when seeking employment.
This problem has ramifications for our city as a whole. Joblessness among the previously incarcerated threatens public safety and hurts our economy. Without a job, the path toward rehabilitation is far more challenging, increasing the likelihood of repeat offenses. About 8,000 people return to the city after serving prison or jail terms each year; half will be back behind bars within three years.
It doesn't have to be this way. Many employers want to give people who serve time a fair shot. They know these employees are hardworking and grateful to have been given a second chance.
As part of our survey, we spoke with employers large and small. A third of them said they had hired a previously incarcerated person or would do so if the opportunity arose. But more than 50 percent said they would be more likely to hire them if a variety of factors were in place.
These include legal liability protection for employers, which would minimize the risk of negligent hiring lawsuits, and "certificates of good standing" indicating that an individual has completed his sentence and is in good standing with the conditions of release.
We also need to ensure that former prisoners obtain the training they need to fill available jobs. Only 50 percent of those previously incarcerated surveyed recently said the training they received while behind bars helped them find a job.
The D.C. Council and criminal justice agencies should take these small, but important steps to open up employment opportunities for District residents with criminal records. Our neighborhoods will be safer and growing numbers of previously incarcerated residents will become productive members of our community who can support themselves and their families.
June Kress is the executive director of the Council for Court Excellence.