Giving Everyone a Chance to Prove Themselves
Today’s guest blog comes from Andrew Ross, a Memphis native, who is an assistant public defender in Nashville. This post is also part of AmeriCorps Alums’ REALTalk series on race, equity, and AmeriCorps alumni as leaders. He also serves as board president of Project Return, a Nashville-based nonprofit that helps people live free and full lives after being released from incarceration. He was an AmeriCorps VISTA from 2004 – 2005 at the Boston Rescue Mission. He has an M.P.P. from Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a J.D. from Vanderbilt University Law School where he was awarded the Carl J Ruskowski Award for his representation of clients in the school’s Community and Economic Development Legal Clinic. Recently he was awarded one of BoardSource’s Judith O’Connor Scholarships, which recognizes emerging leaders in the nonprofit sector.
Think about one of the worst things you’ve ever done in your life. Now imagine that every time you apply for a job, this is the first thing a prospective employer knows about you. This is what it’s like when you are job searching and you have a criminal record. It doesn’t matter if your mistake happened ten years ago. And it doesn’t matter how many good things you’ve done since then. You are required to check the “criminal” box on the job application. You are, at first glance, a “criminal” in a potential employer’s eyes.
As an AmeriCorps VISTA in 2004, I helped start a reentry program for people leaving prison. This experience instilled in me the belief that, contrary to conventional wisdom, no one should be defined by his or her worst moment. If someone wants to work hard to turn their life around, he or she should be given an opportunity.
Ten years later, this principle still motivates me in my job as an assistant public defender and as board president of Project Return, a thirty-five-year-old, Nashville-based non-profit that helps ex-offenders find employment after incarceration.
Every year, the U.S. releases more than 650,000 people from prison. More than half of them will return to prison within three years. But, if a person can find a job shortly after his or her release from prison, the chances of being re-incarcerated substantially decrease. This is why Project Return focuses on employment: it is the single most important predictor of a person’s successful reentry into society.
Getting a job and staying out of prison is, of course, a very positive outcome for every individual who has managed to accomplish this feat. But, successful reentry also has tremendous benefits for our country as a whole. For every person who gets a job and stays out of prison there are fewer taxpayer dollars going to prisons (it costs between $20,000 and $70,000 a year to incarcerate someone in the U.S), less crimes committed, fewer victims of crime, and fewer families torn apart by having a loved one who is incarcerated. And all we have to do is give someone a chance to prove themselves through their own hard work.
Of course, it’s not that easy, because few employers are willing to consider a candidate who has a criminal record. In fact, in one survey, only one-fourth (25.9%) of employers reported that they would definitely or probably hire someone with a criminal conviction.
At Project Return, we overcome this resistance in two ways: we find existing jobs and we create new jobs for our participants. First, all of our participants go through a three-day job readiness program. Here, we provide classes on everything from resume writing and conflict resolution to money management and strategies to discuss one’s criminal record in a job interview. Once a participant graduates from this program, we pair him up with a job services counselor who assists him by creating individualized job search strategies, giving referrals for support services, and obtaining government identification.
While we’ve had great success in finding employers who look past our participants’ criminal record and evaluate them based on all of their strengths and weaknesses, we’ve also recently launched a social enterprise to take matters into our own hands. Through our PROemployment enterprise, we contract with local businesses to provide reliable work crews for a variety of light-labor jobs. And, while our participants are working for PRO-E, they are gaining vocational and soft skills, a recent work history, and a professional reference base—all of which are tremendously helpful in the search for permanent employment. In fact, the companies that contract with PRO-E are often so impressed with our temporary work crews that they will hire members for full-time, permanent employment.
In the last few years, policy makers from both sides of the aisle and at all levels of government have started to recognize that lowering our national recidivism rates makes good policy sense—the costs of incarceration are exorbitant and lower crime rates are universally recognized as a good thing. I’m hopeful that large-scale changes are coming to substantially lower the recidivism rate, but even more good can come from recognizing that a criminal conviction reflects a particular moment in a person’s past.
Since my VISTA year, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know many people who have criminal records. They’ve been mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters; they’ve been high school dropouts, college graduates, former-professional athletes, recovering drug users, talented artists, and everything in between. They’re all looking for another chance to prove themselves. My hope for the future is that all of them will have the opportunity to prove that they can recover from a past mistake and be productive employees and good citizens again. Being a productive employee obviously must start with an opportunity to work. Consider how much more our country could accomplish if we give everyone a chance to contribute to it.