02/03/2014 09:02 am ET Updated Apr 05, 2014

Training Ex-Offenders is the Right Thing to Do to Boost Our Economy

Most Americans would be shocked to know the United States has a higher incarceration rate than that of any other country in the world. One out of every hundred Americans is imprisoned today and one out of every 35 Americans is either jailed, under watch through probation or on parole. Said another way, nearly nine million Americans have been a part of our corrections system.

It's even worse if you are a person of color. For instance, the incarceration rate of black males in the U.S. today is higher than the rate of black males imprisoned in South Africa under Apartheid rule. This is a tragedy that ought to give moral pause to all Americans.

In no way am I suggesting that people who commit serious crimes ought not to be incarcerated. Instead, what I am stating is the need to change for the better the lives of those who have served their time.

We need to recognize the impact of the nation's criminal justice system has slowed our economic recovery. No doubt part of the lag in reducing the unemployment rate is the difficulty of those who have been in prison to gain respectful employment. As a nation, it is in all our interest to ensure that those Americans who have paid their debt to society are able to remake their lives and contribute to society in a positive way. There is nothing more productive than being employed.

That's why focusing on prisoner reentry isn't just a moral imperative but an economic one as well. Washington is mired in partisanship that precludes meaningful action. Some states, including New Jersey, have tried to create programs that help. But so much more needs to be done.

As a start, in Jersey City, we established the strongest municipal Prisoner Reentry Program in New Jersey. It is focused not solely on job training but, critically, placement as well. The State and Federal governments both provided funding to support this important work.

At the same time, to create a healthy environment for parolees who are being trained, we provide both addictions treatment and sober housing. More than two-thirds of ex-offenders are clinically addicted. Without a clean start, job training becomes much more difficult. That's why under our program, participants must be sober, be able to produce three letters of recommendation and a work history. If so, after proper training, we have construction and public works positions for them. Soon, we will be expanding job training for emergency medical personnel, certified mold abatement officers and home health care aides.

In addition to training for workforce development, we have also partnered with SameSky to create beautiful jewelry with the female ex-offenders of the Most Excellent Way transitional housing. Working with Rev. Gloria Walton, these women have learned the skills the women of SameSky Rwanda have developed over these past several years. Ex-offenders, who formerly shoplifted, hosted a kiosk at the Newport Mall in Jersey City over the holidays where they sold their beautiful wares.

Another important barrier that must be eliminated in order to help ex-offenders move into the workforce is removing what many see as a current day scarlet letter. Namely, the box job applicants must check if they were ever incarcerated. Cornell William Brooks, CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said to "that little box" on applications asking prospective employees to confirm if they've been arrested or charged with a crime becomes a "mountainously high" employment barrier. Banning the box will remove this significant hurdle to entry for many job applicants.

Providing the right training and home environment for ex-offenders is too often confused with being soft on crime. Nothing is further from the truth. Creating the right circumstances to start a career is smart economics. The more Americans who are working, in fact, mean a stronger, more successful citizenry for our nation.

Steven Fulop is Mayor of Jersey City, NJ