How I Spent My Summer (and Most of Autumn)

This past Friday was Graduation Day for 28 professionals in social services, workforce development and criminal justice agencies from across Pennsylvania. I was one of them. We’d completed a rigorous training and certification program from the National Institute of Corrections called “Offender Workforce Development Specialist.” OWDS is a nationwide initiative to teach professionals who work with people coming out of prison or jail effective tools and strategies to help them overcome numerous barriers they face in order to find and keep a job. The heart of this work is collaboration between corrections, social services and community.

The OWDS program included three full weeks of classroom training, with a week in August, a week in September and our final week of training last week. We typically had 2-3 hours of homework and reading every night during our classroom training weeks. In between each of those week-long trainings, we had 50 hours of practicum work to complete, applying the skills and knowledge we’d gained by working with people coming out of prison or jail.

The OWDS program has been around since 1994 and many states around the US have had collaborative OWDS teams in place for a decade or more. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania has lagged far behind on this front – our OWDS class was the first in PA to go through the training.

As I spent a chunk of my summer and most of this autumn engrossed in the training, reading, studying and practicum work, close family and friends have heard a lot from me about how intensive it was and how much time I put into it. And a few have asked, with so many people unemployed right now, why spend time helping people who committed crimes to find a job? What about all of the unemployed people who haven’t committed crimes? These are straightforward, fair questions, though the answers may be a bit more complicated.

As I’ve continued learning about our criminal justice system and the wide-ranging impact of all that happens through that system to individuals and their families, what I find most shocking is all of the ways that we continue to “punish” and ostracize people who have been incarcerated, even after they have served their sentence or “paid their debt to society” as some people say. I’ve written about this several times before.

Federal and state laws, and even municipal ordinances have been passed over the years to limit where they can live, what kinds of jobs they’re allowed to have, whether they can live in public or subsidized housing, whether they’re eligible for financial aid for college, medical benefits, and Social Security benefits, whether they’re allowed to retain any parental rights with their children, and whether they can vote (5.3 million Americans are currently barred from voting due to a criminal conviction; and 11 states in the US permanently ban people with felony convictions from voting for the rest of their lives, even after they’ve served their sentence) (3)

With regard to employment, in Pennsylvania alone, our laws limit people with a criminal record from working as aircraft/airport employees, armored car crew members, child care, nursing home/home health/long term care, police, employee benefits, banking, and schools. In addition, there are many occupational licenses in Pennsylvania that cannot be granted to people with certain criminal convictions, including architect, auctioneer, barber, bondsman, chiropractor, dental hygienist, dentist, employment agent, engineer, land surveyor, geologist, funeral director, horse racing, hunting/trip permit salesman, insurance adjuster, mortgage broker, motor vehicle dealer, nurse, occupational therapist, optometrist, osteopath, pharmacist, physical therapist/athletic trainer, physician, physician’s assistant, psychologist, public accountant, radioactive waste disposal, real estate appraiser, real estate broker, salesperson of games of chance, security guard/private detective, speech pathologist/teacher of the impaired, social worker, tax assessor, taxi driver and vehicle damage appraiser. (2) Yes, some of these legal barriers and limitations make sense, depending on the person’s specific crime. But some of these limitations seem unnecessary and extreme.

And these are just the legal barriers ex-offenders face.

Many of them face individual barriers as well:

  • 40% of prisoners lack a high school diploma or GED (1)
  • 31% have physical or mental disabilities (1)
  • 70% have a history of substance abuse (1)

Then there are the community barriers. Landlords don’t want to rent apartments to “them.” Neighborhood residents don’t want “them” living in the community. Employers don’t want to hire “them.” Sometimes, even churches won’t open their doors to “them.”

Yet, if we continue to close all of these doors to people coming back to the community after incarceration, how can we possibly expect them to succeed?

In fact, we know that on average, about 2 out of 3 will “fail” – they will be re-arrested within 3 years. And the costly and destructive cycle will continue. And as taxpayers, we will continue to foot the bill for this failing revolving-door system.

Research shows that unemployment is one of the biggest risk factors for people with a criminal record to wind up back in prison. It makes sense if you stop to think about it: if a person can’t earn money through legal means to support themselves and their families, to pay for decent housing, food and clothing, their risk of returning to crime is much higher.

So, why spend time helping people who committed crimes to find a job? In short, to give them the best possible chance for success so they can become productive, law-abiding members of our community. In the long run, it’s an investment that helps ALL of us.

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(1) From Prison to Work: The Employment Dimensions of Prisoner Reentry: A Report of the Reentry Roundtable, October 2004

(2) Legal Remedies and Limitations on the Employment of People with Criminal Records in Pennsylvania, Community Legal Services, Inc, June 2011

(3) Voting Rights for People with Criminal Records, ACLU


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Posted by Melanie Tagged as: city life lancaster pa restorative justice criminal justice rmo

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