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At The Fortune Society, one of the first things participants say to us is, “I need a job. Can you please help me find a job?” This is the constant plea whether the participant has just come home from prison, has been mandated to participate in our Alternative to Incarceration Program, or has come to us voluntarily to begin or resume engaging in our services.
We provide them with the skills necessary to find a job, counsel them on how to discuss gaps in their resumes due to incarceration and other periods of instability, ensure they have professional attire, and often encourage people to first continue their education, perhaps while working in entry-level positions.
Although these issues have been addressed, individuals are well-prepared, and they otherwise meet job criteria, they far too often face an uphill battle simply because of their criminal-justice involvement.
Successful reentry from incarceration is core to Fortune’s mission. We believe in the power of people to change; build lives through service programs shaped by the experiences of our participants; and change minds through education and advocacy to promote the creation of a fair, humane and truly rehabilitative justice system.
Sadly, people with such histories continue to face barriers to obtain employment. An analysis of over five million formerly incarcerated people revealed that their unemployment rate was a shocking 27 percent, a level higher than the total United States unemployment rate during any period of time. That rate is also almost five times higher than it is for the general population.
These findings are particularly distressing when considering the efforts formerly incarcerated people make to find work and support themselves and their families. Those who have been involved in the criminal legal system face substantial barriers to obtaining meaningful, full-time, well-paid employment that offers a career pathway.
Disturbingly, people of color who have been incarcerated face even greater hurdles to obtaining employment, which is compounded for women of ">This difficulty in obtaining employment creates significant future earning losses and produces a profound racial disparity between entire communities.
Opening doors to employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people is a moral, racial-justice and public-safety issue. Numerous studies have shown that people are more likely to desist from crime if they are employed. Higher-quality employment, with access to benefits and the potential for upward employment mobility, are even more likely to play a role in desistance.
Research shows that meaningful employment provides a sense of connection and purpose, and of true engagement in the social fabric of our broader community. When people experience these tangible and intangible benefits of such employment, we are all safer and better off.
Civil service allows people to give back to their communities through their employment and offers career advancement. Measures currently before the New York City Council would expand access to civil service exams for people involved in the criminal legal system, even while held in city jails or state prisons. They would provide pathways to the kind of stability and opportunity that too often eludes people despite their best efforts when they return home from prison or jail.
If New York City reduces the barriers to civil service jobs by proactively engaging people who are involved in the criminal legal system in the civil service applicant and hiring pool, it would send a clear message to them, and in particular, to those who are held in our city jails: this is a moment in your life. You have potential despite any hurdles, and we want to see you make something of yourself. That message is invaluable and life-changing.
Andre Ward is the associate vice president of The David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at the Fortune Society.
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