658,893 people call the District of Columbia home. Approximately 60,000 of those residents have at least one criminal conviction and have spent at least some time in prison. It is believed that 50-55% of that group is unemployed. The number is a little lower for women, and a little higher for men, but in that range.
Economic Growth DC has a number of organizational goals. One of those is to bring the unemployment rate in the District down to under 5% in all eight wards. This will take some work because in the predominately African-American parts of the District, the real unemployment rate is more like 20%. In order to make a serious push towards 5%, you have to be able to do something about finding jobs for returning citizens.
That basic premise has led us down some interesting roads as it relates the criminal justice system. For instance:
- You would be shocked at how many people are let out of prison without basic identification — no driver’s license, no birth certificate, no social security card, no nothing. And, because of new federal rules, it has become more difficult to obtain identification upon release. You often need a utility bill in your name to prove residence, but if you’re homeless or living with your aunt, you can’t produce a utility bill. In almost all cases, you have to provide proof of identity, usually in the form of a driver’s license, to get a job. It’s like the government inadvertently said we’re going to make it as difficult as possible for a returning citizen to find work.
- The criminal justice system has provided a mechanism for a person who’s served their time to go thru a court supervised process to get that conviction expunged or sealed. But, we’ve made it so difficult, cumbersome and expensive to go through that process that almost no one does. One of the main ways a returning citizen is denied a job is because of the criminal background check. Here we have this process authorized by the constitution that legally permits a person to clean up their record — something that would go further towards helping them find work than almost any other measure — and yet we’ve made it so convoluted that it’s next to impossible.
- We’ve discovered that the average person is likely to commit at least one crime a day because we have managed to criminalize just about everything. At the federal level, there are over 3,000 criminal offenses, and over 300,000 regulations that carry criminal penalties. That’s just flat out of control. The need for broad decriminalization in the District, and around the country, is compelling.
- The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. One of the significant reasons for that is mandatory minimum sentencing. During the “war on crime” we took away a judge’s discretion on sentencing. It’s time to return that responsibility to the bench.
- The conditions where most District residents are incarcerated are deplorable. That’s why we have an entire DC government agency, the Criminal Information Council, that does nothing but inspect and report on conditions in prisons where DC residents are held. Improving the quality of programming while in prison, specifically job training , is a key to reducing recidivism.
- Next to a job and a place to live, mental health care is the most vital need of returning citizens. The overuse of solitary confinement can cause serious and long-lasting mental health problems. We have to do a lot better at identifying and treating PTSD and all of the other mental problems that prison invites.
What is it we plan to do about all this? At the policy level, we will continue to work an these various elements of criminal justice reform with an eye towards making it easier for returning citizens to obtain and keep a job.
At a programmatic level, we don’t think it’s realistic to expect large numbers of returning citizens to find work without active assistance. By making use of our job placement industry experience, we have proposed a program that will create a small team of job placement professionals who will do nothing but place returning citizens into employment. The business plan can be found here: Operation Capstone