Research on Employing Offenders-Council for Court Excellence-DC Public Safety

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[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host, Leonard Sipes.  Ladies and gentlemen, the issue today is employing offenders.  We have a piece of research today from the Council for Court Excellence and what they did was to go out and ask individuals, ask individual employers what it takes to hire people under community supervision.  I spent a good part of the morning taking a look at previous research on the issue of employing offenders and to my knowledge, this hasn’t been done before or it’s been very rarely done where an individual organization goes out and asks not just people who hire, but also former offenders themselves what their issues were in terms of employment, what it takes to hire people under supervision.  So with that lofty introduction, we have two people at our microphones today:  June Kress, the Executive Director of the Council for Court Excellence, and Peter Willner, the Senior Policy Analyst, again for the Council for Court Excellence.  And to June and Peter, welcome to DC Public Safety.

June Kress:  Thank you.

Len Sipes: June first of all, the first question goes to you.  What is the Council for Court Excellence?

June Kress: The Council for Court Excellence is a non-partisan, non-profit civic organization.  We’ve been around since 1982 and our mission, simply put, is to improve the administration of justice in the District of Columbia.  We watch the courts and related institutions and agencies of justice and we make policy recommendations to improve things.  But our work, even though we’re focused on the District, our work has serious implications for jurisdictions all over the country that are interested in improving how justice is administered.

Len Sipes:  And the Council for Court Excellence, you know, I’ve been to several of your meetings, they’re very well attended, well debated.  You look at a variety of issues in terms of the larger criminal justice system and in terms of larger criminal justice issues, so you work goes way beyond the District of Columbia because in essence, Milwaukee is facing exactly what we’re facing right now in Washington D.C.  Anchorage, Alaska, Honolulu, Hawaii – it doesn’t matter where you are in the country, 20% of our audience is worldwide.  I would imagine the same thing is happening in Paris, France.  What you’re doing has implications for the entire country, correct?

June Kress:  That’s absolutely right and when we do our work, we certainly take a look at best practices elsewhere to inform what we’re doing here.  So it’s really an exchange between Washington and everywhere else in the country.

Len Sipes:  All right we have a unique opportunity in terms of recent research that you all conducted and to my knowledge, it’s one of the first, if not the first, where we’ve actually sat down with individual employers and asked them what are your perceptions of hiring people on community supervision.  And there was a wide variety of research; findings that came out of this, 50% were unemployed, regardless of the economics.  So in good times and bad times, 50% of the individuals under community supervision are unemployed.  Now that has huge ramifications for the entire criminal justice system. The research is abundantly clear. The better odds of them being employed, the more they’re employed, the less recidivism there is, the less crime there is, the less costs there are to taxpayers and this has huge implications.  If only 50% are going to be employed regardless of the circumstances, that simply means more crime.  Reducing crime means what can we do to bring that number down, correct?  Peter, you want to…?

Peter Willner:  Yeah, yeah, I think the answer to that is a clear yes.

Len Sipes:  Okay, but I mean how do we do that now?  If 50% are unemployed, regardless of the economics, regardless of the circumstances, what can we do?  I mean, you know, one of the findings that you had is that 77% of the individuals, when they were caught up in the correctional system, whether it’s prison or jail, they didn’t receive any assistance at all in terms of getting ready for employment so obviously, what we do within the correctional setting has an impact in terms of how they are when they get out.

June Kress:  That’s right. And in fact, that’s one of the recommendations, that the Bureau of Prisons and in terms of locally, the District of Columbia jail, begin to try and do something about this, what we believe is a disconnect between the kind of training and education that exists in institutions today, vis-à-vis the kinds of employment opportunities that exist in our particular jurisdiction and in jurisdictions around the country.  The world has changed a lot.  No longer, you know, is there a market for barbers and we believe that Bureau of Prisons needs to take a look at the kind of training that people are getting and make that much more relevant.  I mean, everybody knows that re-entry begins at the beginning, we’ll go into the institution and it shouldn’t begin when people are coming home.

Len Sipes:  Well, we say that, we say that re-entry begins the day they enter the correctional system, but the research on drug treatment is terrible.  Only 10% of people end up getting drug treatment.  Only a small portion are ending up with mental health treatment and by your research and prior research, only a small portion are receiving occupational assistance.  So in essence what we’re say is, is that when we send them into any prison system, state or federal, the great majority are not getting the services that they need in order to hold down crime rates when they get out.

Peter Willner:  That’s right and I think the thing that’s important for your listeners to understand is that the District of Columbia’s prison system is the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The District doesn’t have its own local prison system and so that is part of the national implications I think of our study. We heard from lots of people who were former offenders who were saying they wanted to try to do some job searches before they got out, they wanted to try to put their resume together, but they didn’t have access to the internet, they didn’t have access to anyone who might help them do that search or put their resume together.  And I think part of the context of our study was, we had BOP on our committee and we understand that they are resource-strapped.  And I think the broader conversation that has to happen you know, in this country and across the country is that you know, our prison populations are increasing. I don’t know that BOP is getting the necessary funding to be able to handle that adjusting population.  Part of what they need to get funding for in my view, is to be able to think more systematically about how they can make that goal of re-entry starts on the day they enter more of a reality, not only as it relates to employment but to mental health and drug use and all that.  And I think that’s a legitimate – that was a legitimate concern we heard from BOP.

Len Sipes:  But everybody who I’ve talked to has said that jobs – the people coming out of the prison system have said jobs are the crucial issue.  Regardless of their substance abuse history, regardless of their mental health history, it’s jobs that seem to be the key component when they come out of the prison system.  So my question becomes, if this is such a key issue and if the research is so abundantly clear that the more they’re employed, the less they recidivate, the less crime they commit, the less – you know, we’re talking about saving hundreds of millions of tax-paid dollars if they don’t go back to the prison system – then why not?  What does that say about us as a society that we’re not providing that employment assistance?

Peter Willner:  Well, the District, I think, has made a good first step just late last year when they passed legislation that for the District of Columbia government, that would for a lot of lower level jobs at least, they would not look at a criminal record at all in terms of the hiring process.

Len Sipes:  Um-hm.

Peter Willner:  And so I think the DC government, following the State of Minnesota who adopted that same approach, is trying to take sort of the moral lead in that area.  And I think there are a number of other states that we see – I would include again, Minnesota in this – who have adopted legislation that would encourage private sector employers to hire people and that’s one of our report recommendations, which is private employers are concerned, they’re concerned about their bottom line, but they’re also concerned if they hire someone with a record that for some reason they might be – it might subject them to a liability or lawsuit.

Len Sipes:  Right.  They’re concerned about being sued.

Peter Willner:  That’s right, and so there’s a legislative fix for that where if they – where if an employer goes through a several-step hiring process to make sure they’re looking at the person’s record, making sure that it is not, when they hire that person, there’s no greater risk to public safety or on the street.  If they go through that process, that can severely limit their ability to be sued for negligent hiring and Minnesota’s adopted that, New York State has that in place and that was one of our recommendations that you know, we understand the DC Council might be taking that up very soon this year.

Len Sipes:  Now I do want to get to that but I don’t want to leave this issue of jobs within the correctional setting.  I mean, if say bricklaying – bricklaying is a viable alternative, being an electrician, being a plumber, being an apprentice electrician or a plumber or a bricklayer.  These are all hard skills that are going to transfer into just about any economy.  If we had a system that produced people with those skills as they came out of the prison system, what impact would it have on crime?  What impact would it have on public safety, what impact would it have on taxpaying dollars?

Peter Willner:  It would have a good impact on that I think.  You know, I think what we were finding, though, when we were going through our research, the challenges, you might have that skill set but the next step is getting a license to do that.  And I think that that’s where you know, state-to-state, there might be some variance, so you might come out with that skill set.  But if you’re not – if you don’t have the ability to get a license, then you’ve built the skill set that means nothing at the end of the day.  But your premise is correct though, that if you do train folks in these areas, it will be a benefit, but we have to make sure we’re also careful about giving them the ability to get a license.

Len Sipes:  Okay, so we have to do – the first part of the solution is dealing with the training within the correction settings and the fact that the great majority according to your survey said, 77% said they received assistance in jail or prison in terms of occupational training.  The second thing we have to do is to deal with things at the home front, is assuming even if they came out of prison, assuming they came out with a hard skill, there has to be laws and legislations in place that allows them to get the certification that they need to go on and practice that occupation, so that’s step number two.  Is that what I hear?

June Kress:  That’s right.  And also – I mean, the crux of the problem is the criminal record.  Something like 80% of people that we interviewed said that they were asked all the time about their criminal records.  So this has become such a barrier, both in good times and in bad, and so what do you do about – I mean, Pete was just talking about the legislation to remove you know, to remove that problem from the folks that – from the government sector, but it still exists in the private sector, so our research and our recommendations are about trying to incentivize employers, which is why you know, where we came up with removing employer liability.

Len Sipes:  But you did talk to employers –

June Kress:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  – this is one of the exciting things about this study.  I mean, you reached out to the employment community in a very systematic fashion and you spoke to a lot of individuals within the employment community – that’s exciting, because that’s one of the first times it’s happened.  We’ve tried to do that here at CSOSA, we’ve tried to crowd source this issue, not terribly successfully, only about 20 calls –

June Kress:  Right.

Len Sipes: – as a result of it, but you spoke to a lot more than that and so what are you hearing from the employment community, the private sector, in terms of what it’s going to take the higher people under community supervision?

Peter Willner:  Well, I think the, I think the benefit is that people who are under some sort of supervision, employers I think are attracted more to those folks than people who are not under any sort of supervision.  We did find, it’s not reported so much in our report, but we did find that employers were very interested in people who had some level of case management.  But what employers were more interested in was not being sued as a result of hiring someone who had committed a prior criminal offense.  They were also very interested in knowing that the person was in good standing with the conditions of their release and so those were the things that currently don’t exist in DC, they don’t exist in a lot of places in the country and I think that is something that will help to incent private sector employers to hire.

Len Sipes:  But will they hire people with criminal records?  I mean, what I’m hearing, what you’re saying is that the answer is yes, as long as their level of liability is limited.

Peter Willner:  That’s right.

Len Sipes:  That becomes the key issue.  I mean, so it’s not outright discrimination against people with a criminal history.  I mean, one of the problems that I have in this whole issue is that I’ve interviewed a lot of different people, both on radio and television and they are years away from their last crime. They are years away from their last issue of substance abuse.  These are very good risks and some of them have real skills, some of them have real solid work histories, but they’re unemployed. They’re years away from their last crime, years away from their last positive drug test, so that to me is a bit of a tragedy.  We’re not talking about somebody fresh out of prison, we’re not talking somebody who’s still in the game, somebody still taking drugs, somebody still involved in violent crime.  We’re talking about people past that, yet they can’t find work.  So there’s got to be something else at work here besides liability, correct?

June Kress:  Well, we’re also recommending that a certificate of rehabilitation program or certificate of good standing program be conceptualized and implemented and monitored in the District of Columbia and the recommendation calls for the bringing together of all of the relevant criminal justice agencies, including the Office on Ex-Offender Affairs, to talk about how this would best be undertaken.

Len Sipes:  We’re halfway through the program already; it’s gone by very fast.  June Kress, Executive Director of Council for Court Excellence; Peter Willner, Senior Policy Analyst, again, for the Council for Court Excellence, to get a copy of this fascinating report in terms of interviewing both offenders as well as employers as to what it takes to increase the level of employment for people under community supervision.  June, I’m going to go right back to you.  In terms of this certificate of rehabilitation, that’s tough for any bureaucracy to do.  Now all of us have been around the criminal justice system for a number of years and we’ve all taken a look at lower level offenders and found to our dismay, at a certain point, where they do end up in serious crimes.  So when we issue a certificate of rehabilitation, whatever agency is going to issue that certificate, their reputation is on the line.  If we say there is a certification of rehabilitation for John Smith and John Smith three years down the road commits some crime, then the agency issuing that certificate of rehabilitation is going to be held accountable.

June Kress:  Well absolutely.  I think those kinds of details will need to be worked out and we’re not indicating that if someone walks in with a certificate of good standing, that they’re automatically going to get a job.  The point, though, you know, this is very much a part of the 5% solution concept, which is, we believe that this could be and has been in other jurisdictions, a conversation starter.  It puts formerly incarcerated folks at the top of the pile in terms of trying to, you know, the resume pile, in terms of trying to get their foot in the door in order to get an interview.

Len Sipes:  But it gets to be right back to the proposition that I made, excuse me, before asking the question, there are – I have sat down and talked to hundreds of people throughout my career who are bricklayers, who are electricians, who you know, their last conviction was three years ago.  They haven’t had a positive drug test in the last 2 ½ years.  They are clean, they’re not working.  So it gets back to how do you convince employers that this person, regardless of the fact that he’s had an armed robbery, he’s beyond that.  He’s ready to go.  He wants to work.  So a certificate of rehabilitation is one of the things we need to consider.

June Kress:  Absolutely.  And you know, Len, we don’t think that stigma, the stigma that ex-offenders, formerly incarcerated persons face, is going to be wiped out through the publication of this report.  It’s going to take a very long time to change people’s minds. I mean, it’s kind of like you know, seat belt use.  It didn’t happen overnight.

Len Sipes:  Correct.

June Kress:  It’s a whole see change that the country is beginning to go through and I think it’s important to point out that this report took into account the perspective of employers and ex-offenders and also law enforcement – very much reflecting the kind of balanced work that the council has done for 30 years.  We made a very, very conscious effort to make sure that those three perspectives are balanced out, because this is, you know, at the end of the day, this is all about public safety.  We want to make sure that you know, it’s not just simply assisting people in getting jobs, to help them and their families and to help entire communities, but to help jurisdictions that are faced with a serious public safety interest.  Because if people can’t find jobs, chances are that they will engage in crime.

Len Sipes:  Or they’re going to come back to the criminal justice system, they’re going to victimize somebody else –

June Kress:  That’s right.

Len Sipes:  – they’re going to continue to cost us literally hundreds of billions of dollars.  I mean, 710,000 people every year leave the prison system throughout the country, either the state prison systems or the federal prison systems.  That’s an enormous amount of people – 710,000.  Now if we do, the national recidivism rates at the moment are 50% after three years of returning to the prison system, so we’re talking about 350,000 individuals at the cost of, my heavens, at least $20,000-30,000 a year, the cost of building prisons, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars.  So there’s a lot at stake.  If we can find work for them, if we can find employment for them, that number of people returning back to the prison system goes down dramatically.  That’s the bottom line, correct?

June Kress:  Correct.

Len Sipes:  Okay, now I’m looking at the New York Times, a recent editorial, in their opinion page by two very prominent criminologists, with the idea of, there’s a certain amount of time, there’s certain point where that person loses their stigma as to being dangerous.  There’s a certain point where that person loses that stigma as being a threat to public safety, compared to people who are not involved in crime, they’re in essence saying that after seven or 10 years or so, that that person’s rate of recidivism is no worse or any better than the general population’s rate of recidivism.  So there is a numerical number statistically speaking, as to when these people even out in terms of the risk of public safety.  So it’s that stigma of carrying that criminal record for decades.  Something that happened at 18 and now you’re 38 and the person doesn’t get the job you know, 20 years later – that doesn’t hold water criminologically-speaking, correct?

Peter Willner:  That’s correct.  And you know, I would add to that though that you know, if there are a lot of challenges, like we’ve come across the example in certain industry sectors, so banking or the insurance industry, which are federally regulated.  We’ve learned that in those sectors, they are not free actors to hire whomever they want.  When they hire somebody, it has to be run through a federal agency, so we’ve heard anecdotally that an insurance company tried to hire somebody, the federal regulating agency that oversaw them, found that person had a criminal record from 25 years ago and denied them the ability to hire that person because of that conviction.  So there’s a whole series of federal regulations that are industry-specific that add to the complexity of this challenge and that you know, I think trying to factor in some of the criminological research to come up with a better approach to this is something that’s certainly worthwhile but tackling those various federally-regulated sectors is going to be a challenge.

Len Sipes:  But the low-hanging fruit here is that certainly we can all agree – I mean, everybody, not just the three of us in this room, but everybody can agree that there is a certain amount of time where the person’s criminal history should no longer be held against them, so issuing a “certificate of rehabilitation” for somebody who’s 10 years past their crime, according to the piece that I was looking at in the New York Times, that certainly everybody would agree that you can’t hold him responsible for the actions of his youth forever.  I mean, if I was held responsible for the stupidity of my youth, I wouldn’t be sitting here, I wouldn’t be a member of the criminal justice system.  There is a certain point where forgiveness is in society’s best interest and we should move on.

June Kress:  Well especially if someone has served their time.

Peter Willner:  Right.  But even if they’ve served their time, they could be fresh from prison.  I mean, they could say to themselves, okay, well let’s see how well he adjusts in society before I give him an opportunity to hire.  I’m simply saying there is a point where we could easily agree and we could disagree as to the years.  I think they were, in the research, we’re talking about seven years.  There is a certain point where it just doesn’t make any sense to continue to hold that person responsible for what happened 10 years ago, 15 years ago.

June Kress:  Well the collateral consequences are too great.

Len Sipes:  Right, right.

Peter Willner:  Yeah, and I would just add that you know, I’m not sure that it’s in anyone’s interest to have an agency certify that someone is rehabilitated.  I think there are a lot of good, you know, I think really saying anyone is rehabilitated is a –

June Kress:  Risky business.

Peter Willner:   – considerable challenge. And I think really, what we found when it came to what employers were interested in, they just wanted to know if that person was in compliance.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Peter Willner:  With the conditions of their release.  And so I think a much more accurate way to describe what we’re talking about is to call it a certificate of good standing.

Len Sipes:  A certificate of good standing.

Peter Willner:  So, I –

Len Sipes:  That’s an important point.

Peter Willner:  Yeah, I don’t think an employer wants to know that somebody’s rehabilitated, I mean, appreciating what we’ve seen here in the District recently regarding you know, people who’ve been convicted of embezzling and all that who’ve never had a criminal record.

Len Sipes:  Right.

June Kress:  Right. When I said risky business, I meant that because the definition of rehabilitation is such a loaded definition open to you know, many, many different interpretations by many different people.  Opting away from using that term, I think is the way to go.

Len Sipes:  The conversations I’ve had to the employment, with the employment community – and we only have five minutes left in the program – I’ve had some surprisingly frank conversations with people in the employment community and they’ve essentially come to me and said, Leonard, what you just said a little while ago – if you tell me that the guy or the woman is a clean risk, will show up every day, will work hard, I’ll consider hiring that person.  I’m not going to say as a class I’m not going to hire anybody caught up in the criminal justice system.  You heard a lot of that, correct?

Peter Willner:  Correct.

Len Sipes:  I mean, it goes against the stereotype; I’m not going to hire you because you’ve been in the prison system.  Any employer sitting down at night and watching these network programs, Hard Time, Lock Up, I mean, how in the name of heavens do we ask that person the following day to consider somebody who is out of that environment.  If I sat there and I spent my night watching those programs, I wouldn’t hire anybody coming out of the prison system because that’s the stereotype I have of that individual.  But yet, surprisingly, the employers that I’ve talked to said, no, I will.  You’ve just got to make it easy for me.

Peter Willner:  Well, and I think that you know, a lot of the folks that we’ve talked to and I’m referring to former offenders, a lot of them have gotten to the point where they’re highly motivated people, that I think that they possess a lot of the attributes that employers are looking for and it’s a lot, you know, 50% of the game when you’re hiring somebody is, can you show up?  Will you be reliable?  Will you do what I ask, what I want you to do without a lot of fuss?

Len Sipes:  Right.

Peter Willner:  And I think there are a lot of people who have, when they’ve been in prison, they’ve had a chance to reflect and they are ready to make that next step and they’re highly motivated employees.

June Kress:  I would just add that they’re also – it can be extremely good role models for other people. They have been through challenges and have surmounted those challenges, and that to me is a very good role model.

Len Sipes:  Well, it just doesn’t have to deal with that particular individual because the great majority of the people under our supervision have kids.  So it’s just not him, it’s just not her, it’s them.

June Kress:  Right.

Len Sipes:  In terms of being a role model, in terms of setting an example, in terms of breaking a chain throughout the course of the years, in terms of just putting you know, them in a nice place to live and food on the table.  So much of this has real implications for the larger society.  But the sense that I got from the employers is, I’m not here to deal with the larger society, I’m here to make a dollar.  The great majority of hiring comes from the private sector and you’ve got to prove to me that this person is going to help me accomplish my purposes.

Peter Willner:  Yeah, I think that’s right but I think that, you know, I think you can’t discount that there are … I mean, not every private employer is exclusively motivated by the bottom line.  I mean, that certainly is a major factor in what they do but there are private employers who have a sense of moral justice and you know, what’s right and trying to promote you know, people and trying to help people and families, that can also edge your bottom line.  If you’re helping families near your neighborhood store, for example, if you can help them become more economically stable, that might have you know, longer term effects on your business.

Len Sipes:  I was being the devil’s advocate because I –

June Kress:  You know, I would, I understand though –

Len Sipes:   – I’ve interviewed those employers, I’ve interviewed those employers who sat through the microphones and said, it’s in society’s best interest for me to hire.

June Kress:  Well, but even if we all agreed that the bottom like is you know, making money, any employer who really, really gets it, knows that this is a worthy investment to get people back on their feet, to ensure that the taxes are paid – it all goes back into the community, which then helps their bottom line.

Len Sipes:  We only have a minute left, so to the Mayor of Milwaukee, to the council person here in the District of Columbia, to the congressional aides sitting there on capitol hill, what must they understand based upon your research?  Certainly, certainly the fact that this is in society’s best interest and they’re willing to hire if they’re given the right set of circumstances.

Peter Willner:  Right, and I think that there’s, that there are lots of people who are coming out of prison and jail who are at that point where they are ready to be contributing members of society and a lot of them are at the point where they would make excellent employees and be excellent contributors.

Len Sipes:  Peter, you’ve got the final word.  June do you have something quickly?

June Kress:  I would just add that to those mayors of Milwaukee and other jurisdictions, we would encourage them to have a community dialogue about collateral consequences like employment and all of the other collateral consequences of long-term imprisonment.  It’s good for the community to talk about this.

Len Sipes:  And I think what the Council for Court Excellence has done is extraordinarily valuable, not only to here in the District of Columbia but to this issue throughout the county.  I think you all have produced an extraordinarily important piece of research and we thank you for it.  Ladies and gentlemen, today our guests have been June Kress, Executive Director, Council for Court Excellence; Peter Willner, he is the Senior Policy Analyst for the Council for Court Excellence.  The report on employing offenders, Court excellence is one word.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety.  We thank you for your letters, we thank you for your cards, we thank you for all of your input at the show – suggestions and in terms of ways that we can improve what it is that we do.  And we want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.

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