“I wasn’t informed about the long-term consequences of my conviction before or after I accepted a plea deal for seven years and eight months in 2004. It wasn’t until my release in 2012 that I learned about the hidden sentence I would experience for the rest of my life. When I was released I had a plan to succeed, but little by little my plan crumbled. I couldn’t become a welder, an auto body and paint technician or a barber. I couldn’t even scrub toilets and mop floors at the local hospital. The more I tried to contribute to my community, the more I faced barriers.” — Jay Jordan, Second Chances Project Director, Californians for Safety and Justice
The part of my job I appreciate the most is getting to know the exceptional men and women who have turned their lives around — after facing seemingly insurmountable challenges — with a helping hand from of the Urban League Movement.
Just last week in Chicago, I had the honor to meet two young men — one who has founded a thriving landscaping business, and another who is well on his way to a career as a commercial truck driver. These would be commendable achievements even for anyone with a reasonable clear path, but for those emerging from incarceration, they are extraordinary.
The National Urban League has been serving the formerly incarcerated for more than 50 years, only in the last few years with the support of the federal government. The Urban Reentry Jobs Program provides formerly incarcerated adults with the necessary skills and training to successfully reenter the workforce and jobs at family-sustaining wages.
Through Adult Reentry, a National Urban League signature program, the formerly incarcerated have an opportunity to earn industry-recognized credentials, learn employment-focused skills and form positive relationships with their communities.
Among the nearly 800 participants:
– 86 percent have earned a credential or certificate.
– 95 percent did not return to prison.
– 65% became employed
A 35-year-old father of three, Mario emerged from prison after eight years never having held a permanent legal job. He was living at a Salvation Army before he found his way to the Chicago Urban League. After completing the Urban Reentry Jobs Program, Mario has graduated with high honors from the welding program at Kennedy-King College.
The need for initiatives like the Urban Reentry Jobs Program could not be more critical. As many as three out of four people remain unemployed a year after their release from prison, and just 12.5 percent of employers say they will accept job applications from the formerly incarcerated.
This burden falls disproportionately on America’s people of color, who represent more than two-thirds of the incarcerated while comprising only about 24 percent of the population. African Americans are more likely than White Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted, and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as White men.
No aspect of the criminal justice system has exacerbated the mass incarceration crisis more than the so-called War on Drugs, and none is more racially disparate. African Americans are no more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than Whites, but they far more likely to be charged and sentenced to prison for identical conduct.
This crisis affects not only the families of the incarcerated, but the nation as a whole. According to an ACLU report, the gross national product suffers an annual loss of $80 billion a year due to employment discrimination against the formerly incarcerated, not to mention the costs to local and state governments caused by recidivism. If states could lower recidivism rates by just 10 percent, they could save an average of $635 million annually, according to Pew Research Center.
Millions of people leave prison to reenter their communities each year. The Urban League Movement is committed to removing barriers to their full participation and helping every American to achieve his or her full potential. As civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander wrote in her seminal work, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” “Martin Luther King Jr. called for us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable.”
Morial is president of the National Urban League.