02/04/2013 05:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Keeping People Out of Prison: Transitional Jobs as a Reentry Strategy

Roughly one-third of the individuals entering the U.S. prison system are there for something other than committing a new crime. Instead, these individuals are caught up in the vicious undercurrent that keeps prisons overflowing.

In the jargon of the criminal justice system, the 33.3 percent that I'm writing about have committed a technical rule violation (TRV) of one of the many rules, mandates, and fees -- including child support -- associated with their post-release conditions.

Often, the root cause of those violations is the lack of a job. And it isn't easy to find a job with a criminal record and limited skills training: up to 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are still unemployed one year after their release.

Without a job, it's difficult to meet the financial obligations associated with release from prison, such as supervision fees, court costs, victim restitution, and child support. For example, according to the Reentry Policy Council:

  • An analysis of restitution debt in one jurisdiction found that the 15 percent of people on probation with restitution orders owed an average of $3,500.
  • Most people who are incarcerated have children under 18 years of age. Parents in one state were shown to leave prison owing an average of more than $20,000 in child support.
  • Nationally, two-thirds of people detained in jails report annual incomes under $12,000 prior to arrest.
  • Most people returning to the community have difficulty finding employment upon release from incarceration, and they often rely on their families for support.

As the Council cautions,

A person's inability to meet all their financial obligations when returning from incarceration can contribute to their reincarceration -- jeopardizing the chance for long-term support to their children and families, or for making restitution.

In addition to these burdens, it's a challenge to manage the non-financial terms of reentry such as reporting to the clinic to take a drug test every three days, meeting with a parole agent every week, and attending anger management classes or drug addiction treatment sessions.

Rightly so, parolee oversight is most invasive when a person has just been released from prison. Indeed, no matter how well a person may behave in prison, the proof of rehabilitation is how that person handles reentry to society. Therefore, we have laws and systems in place operated by parole, probation, community corrections, and work release programs that make for strict supervision upon release. The trouble is, attempting to find a job and earn a living while complying with these systems often puts ex-offenders right back where they started, in prison.

In my work, I have seen that transitional jobs offer ex-offenders the opportunity to earn a living and remain compliant with strict supervision. By providing flexible employment and immediate wage-paid work in combination with job skills training and supportive services, transitional jobs programs provide the support people need to avoid TRVs and successfully reintegrate with society.

These jobs aren't just quick fixes -- assigning one of our most challenging and vulnerable populations to work that is designed to improve their skills and workplace behavior gives them the experience and training they need to find a permanent job. What's more, transitional jobs not only reduce unemployment and help solve the problem of our overflowing prisons, they provide real value to employers and our economy. As the President of RecycleForce, I've seen it first-hand.

Building a stronger workforce while creating a cleaner environment may sound idealistic, but it's precisely what we do at RecycleForce. We are a social enterprise offering comprehensive and innovative recycling services while providing transitional jobs to formerly incarcerated individuals. We collect electronic waste and other recyclables from residents and corporate partners, deconstruct these items, recycle the materials, and dispose of the waste safely and cleanly. The scrap metals and other reusable materials collected in this process are then sold to help pay for life-changing workforce training to support our participants' reentry back into society.

Our model has caught the attention of everyone from the mayor of Indianapolis and the governor of Indiana to the U.S. Department of Labor, so much so that the Department of Labor has put us to the test. RecycleForce and our Indianapolis-based partners are one of seven sites selected from over 200 applicants from across the county to participate in the Enhanced Transitional Jobs Demonstration (ETJD) program. Under the supervision of New York-based research firm MDRC, the program is testing the efficacy of transitional jobs for clients coming home from prison and for those struggling to pay child support. As we are learning, these two populations overlap.

We embrace a labor force on which the rest of the country has turned their backs. Our approach is putting one of the most difficult-to-employ populations to work. Without effective support, we can't expect folks with limited job skills to find employment, feed their families and face a host of mandates that challenge their ability to improve themselves.

The idea that by serving time one has paid his debt to society is ingrained in our social narrative, but it is not accurate. Once caught up in the tides of the criminal justice system, it is very difficult to escape -- recidivism rates in the U.S. exceed 66 percent, and more than one-third of those returning are there because of a TRV. Our approach is not to eliminate prisons -- there are individuals who commit violent crimes who need to be incarcerated. However, there is a large portion of our current prison population who can become productive members of society if given the opportunity upon release. Transitional jobs are an effective way to do that and in the process, make our country stronger.

RecycleForce is a member of the National Transitional Jobs Network (NTJN). The NTJN is a national coalition dedicated to getting chronically unemployed Americans back to work. In addition to providing employment programs like RecycleForce with direct technical assistance and best practices research to help them improve outcomes, the NTJN gives the chronically unemployed a voice in Washington, fighting hard for programs and policies that help them succeed in the workforce.

With your help we can ensure that every person who wants to work has access to a transitional job program like RecycleForce in their community. Please consider donating $10 today to support the NTJN. Your contribution to the National Transitional Jobs Network gives them the resources to fight for, protect, and advance transitional jobs in order to get #AmericaBack2Work. Click here to contribute via Crowdrise.

By Gregg Keesling, President, RecycleForce