There are 70,000 ex-offenders living in the District and every year, 8,000 more men and women are released into the community. Most times, ex-offenders won't get a second look from an employer if they ticked the box on an application indicating they have been convicted of a crime. At the same time, there are at least 700,000 jobs available in the District on any given day. While no one is suggesting that the formerly incarcerated would come with the skills and knowledge to fill all these positions, there is a realization that a potentially valuable pool of talent and expertise has laid fallow.
On Thursday, Nov. 17, the Council for Court Excellence (CCE) held a press conference at the downtown headquarters of the DC Chamber of Commerce in Northwest to share the findings of a major two-year study. The research centered on how the District can more fully utilize an untapped employment source.
The study detailed the tremendous obstacles facing District residents with a criminal record. The report, titled, Unlocking Employment Opportunity for Previously Incarcerated Persons in the District of Columbia, provides a number of practical and inexpensive solutions to a critical problem in the city. CCE conducted surveys and in-depth interviews with 550 District residents who spent time in a prison or a jail and a diverse group of nearly 20 employers as well as representatives of D.C. business associations. Among the findings is the fact that 80 percent of the businesses surveyed said they do not have a policy in place to hire individuals with a criminal record and rely instead, on application forms that ask about criminal history.
Among the key findings: 46 percent of ex-offenders surveyed said they were unemployed; 80 percent said they were asked all the time about their criminal records; and 77 percent of responders said they received no assistance from "anyone at the facility" in helping them find a job.
"In D.C., a criminal record is an enormous impediment," said June Kress, Ph.D, CCE's executive director. "There is little prospect of finding steady work which is a threat to Washington's long-term economic health. Half of the 8,000 (ex-offenders) is likely to return to jail in three years. Joblessness among the previously incarcerated is a major contributor to high unemployment in the District's poorest neighborhoods, threatening the city's long-term economic health and public safety."
"These recommendations would have a minimal upfront cost and would produce dividends for the city, neighborhoods and people with steady jobs."
DC Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Barbara Lang agrees.
"For 70 years, the Chamber has been the champion of local businesses, large and small. We drive D.C.'s economy and we create jobs in the city. This makes sense from a business standpoint ... the lack of economic activity in parts of D.C. does no one any good. It is in D.C.'s self-interest to promote employment, especially in Wards 7 and 8. People without jobs don't contribute to the local economy. D.C. will prosper if we all rise together."
Lang and several participants spoke of the need to educate the community about the importance and necessity of re-integrating ex-offenders into the fabric of the city. However, a recurring theme focused on the apprehension local business people have about hiring individuals with a criminal record.
But Michael F. Curtin, Jr., CEO of DC Central Kitchen in Northwest could not suppress his enthusiasm as he discussed the many benefits that accrue from hiring ex-offenders.
"It is vitally important that we're here today and look at this as an economic issue not one that is moral or because it seems right," he said.
And Curtin has put his money where his mouth is. Almost half of DC Central Kitchen's staff of 121 employees is comprised of ex-offenders.
"We've always been focusing on folks needing the most help. The most significant and immediate impact on the community comes by helping this group," Curtin said. "I think this is great. At least now, there's significant attention paid to attending to the economic impact ... we take resources, food, kitchens, people. We need to keep people out of prison."
DC Central Kitchen produces 5,000 meals a day, operates a catering company, a full-service dining outfit for the District's 142 schools, and ancillary businesses such as a wholesale component and a healthy foods unit that together bring in $4.5 million a year. Curtin said there needs to be a greater push to develop social enterprise businesses to hire these men and women.
"It's important to put this in the economy," he said of the need to hire ex-offenders. "It takes $40,000 to imprison someone in this city ... We're saving the city a couple of million dollars and they (ex-offenders) are paying rent, buying food, going to the movies and most importantly, supporting their children. There is ... generational change that is taking place."
Curtin talked about one employee, a Southeast resident who spent 23 years in prison. As a child, his father was in prison and his mother was a drug addict. At age 11, he stole food to feed his two brothers and ended up in the criminal justice system.
"He had the expectation that if he was alive at 21 that he would be in prison," said Curtin. "He got a GED and welding, carpentry and drywall certificates but when he came out, there were no jobs. He was hired at DC Central Kitchen and is now a manager with a family and a daughter. He understands the value of a job. The changes have had far-reaching implications in his life. It seems right and moral but this is the smart thing to do. We're flushing millions and millions of dollars and people."
"We have to keep an open mind. The sweeping generalizations we make are not allowing people to have access to any jobs ... this is about the future of the economic survival of this city."
CCE offers a series of recommendations that include: the D.C. City Council passing a bill that provides liability protection for local businesses which hire anyone with a criminal record; one or more District agencies developing a "certificate of good standing" program to promote the licensing and hiring of men and women who spent time in jail; the city conducting an annual review of government contracts and grants related to reentry and the creation of a compendium of best practices to better direct reentry funding; and regular review by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and if necessary, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) and the U.S. Parole Commission of available training options for the previously incarcerated. This would ensure that training opportunities in prison meet the needs for in-demand jobs in the District.
Despite the obvious needs, said D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large), city officials have fallen short of their responsibilities.
"What has the government done? Made it more difficult to get jobs, housing, getting over addictions, overcoming mental health issues. And it has decreased its help with public assistance and food stamps," he said. "We have made it more difficult by creating a greater problem with ex-offenders seeking work."
"There is a basis sometimes for discrimination. You don't want an embezzler working in a bank. (But) this is a more thoughtful approach."
Jay A. Brozost, chairman of CCE's Board of Directors and Lockheed Martin's Vice President and General Counsel for Washington Operations, reiterated Lang's comments about educating the community on the benefits of putting in place mechanisms to hire more ex-offenders.
"This increases the employment outcomes for returning citizens and balances the divergent needs of returning citizens, employers, law enforcement and the community," he said. "I love D.C., and this is a good way to give back. I think this is a very, very good cause and I'm committed."
"Lockheed Martin is a very large corporation and has 125,000 employees but the corporate headquarters is here ... we want to make sure that our workers have a safe environment. This is a great way to make the city safer and help people."