Out of Prison and Out of Work: Employment Barriers in DC

The Numbers

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DC’s economy is booming, with more jobs being created each year and economic growth that is outperforming the rest of the region. Yet this economic prosperity is passing many DC residents by. Nearly 15 percent of black residents are unemployed despite actively looking – a level usually associated with recessions – while white unemployment continues to decrease and is lower today than prior to the Great Recession.

What’s going on? There are many factors that prevent unemployed job seekers – a disproportionate share of whom are black, low-income, or lacking a college degree – from finding employment, let alone a living-wage job. One issue is that many jobs being created require advanced education and skills, which disadvantaged populations are less likely to have. Better investment in adult education, job training, and direct employment programs is one answer to making sure everyone can benefit from DC’s prosperity. But that’s not enough.

Many DC residents experience other significant barriers to employment, in particular, a criminal conviction or arrest record. This can make it virtually impossible to obtain a steady, decent-paying job, or any job for that matter. With 2,000 people returning to DC from prison each year and 17,000 involved in court supervision, this is no small issue.

A growing economy alone will not ensure that residents with a criminal record and other job seekers with high barriers to employment have a fair chance at getting a job. The District should do more to help these residents get back on their feet.

An Uneven Economic Recovery
DC’s unprecedented prosperity has not benefitted all residents. Black residents and residents without a college degree face rates of joblessness that are far higher than before the recession. In contrast, unemployment among white residents and college-educated residents has largely recovered from the recession and is now very low. As a result, the gap in unemployment between white and black residents has grown, as has the gap between college-educated workers and other workers.

Most of DC’s job growth has been in the tech industry and other fields requiring highly skilled applicants who meet an extensive list of qualifications. Roughly 65 percent of DC positions open in 2016 were jobs paying a “living wage,” defined in DC as $21.92 an hour. That’s encouraging at face value. But it means that disadvantaged job seekers – those who have had less access to opportunities that enable a person to obtain a college degree and professional skills than those with greater economic and social privilege – are missing out on the benefits of DC’s booming economy.

A Criminal Background Makes It Even Harder
In addition to the short supply of attainable job positions, one of the greatest barriers to getting hired in DC – let alone finding a job that pays enough to cover rent, transportation, and other basic needs – is having a felony or criminal conviction of any kind. This is a sizable population: approximately 2,000 people return to the District each year following release from prison, and over 17,000 residents cycle through court supervision, such as probation, each year.

Employment discrimination on the basis of criminal convictions or involvement in the justice system is pervasive in DC and beyond. Merely listening to justice-involved and returning citizens at public events and community meetings reveals just how difficult it is to find and keep a job. This is despite “ban the box” employment laws, which are not perfect but are a good start to reducing discrimination.

Yet, many employers do not abide by these laws and continue to issue applications asking about conviction history, or illegally advertise jobs as “felons need not apply.” Other employers find loopholes or ways around ban-the-box, including using race (especially if an applicant is black) or gaps in job history as an indicator of a possible conviction or arrest record – whether true or not – and then discriminating based on these factors alone, without having run an actual background check.

The 17,000 people who cycle through DC court supervision each year not only face the hurdle of finding an employer who will hire them, but one who also will accommodate their mandatory court dates, meetings with probation officers, and other requirements of supervision. Missing these, even due to work, can put the worker at risk of being taken back to jail for violating the terms of supervision.

Residents who are returning citizens are also uniquely disadvantaged because of our lack of a local “state” prison, due to the 1997 Revitalization Act, which put the federal government in control of our criminal justice and prison system. As a result, DC is the only jurisdiction in the country (besides certain tribal lands) that ships all of its residents sentenced to prison to federal facilities, which are scattered across the country.

The fact that a DC resident can serve their sentence as far away as California and be subject to frequent transfers across US federal prisons makes it difficult to maintain connections to family, friends, and other support networks vital to regaining stability and finding a job once released. Those coming home from prison are sometimes returned to DC in the middle of the night, with no money and no coordination with local reentry resources – not a conducive environment to finding a job, housing, and becoming financially self-sufficient upon release.

DC Can Do More to Help Returning Citizens
The District is making an increased effort to reduce the barriers faced by justice-involved and returning residents, but there is more that can be done.

The first way is to fund programs that serve people with high barriers to employment, including prior felony convictions, through providing adult education, job-training programs, and subsidized employment, such as Project Empowerment, operated by the DC Department of Employment Service (DOES). DOES also holds “First Friday Round-ups” at its American Job Center in Southeast (one of four centers across the city), where job seekers with high barriers can learn about and enroll in free occupational skills training, and connect with employers.

Another program that should be highlighted is the DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training Program, which provides training and real-world internships for reentering citizens, among others. Programs that intentionally target formerly incarcerated individuals should be used as a model for the District to create and fund.

A second way to support returning citizens and other justice-involved workers is through targeted legislation. This year, the District was one of the first jurisdictions in the nation to pass and fund “ban-the-box-on-housing” laws, which will hopefully make it easier to obtain housing despite a criminal conviction record. In 2016, DC also passed legislation to create the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program (IIEP), which will support returning citizens to start small businesses, rather than navigate the discrimination faced in the job market. Mayor Bowser and the Council have not yet funded IIEP, but there is a chance it will get some funding when the Council completes the budget for 2018.

DC can and should attempt to reduce barriers to employment for all, including those with a criminal background. Too many people who want to work are held back due to disadvantage. If we want to create a more equitable city where everyone benefits from economic prosperity, reducing employment barriers and enabling people with a criminal background to find gainful employment is a much-needed first step.

Linnea Lassiter is a policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (www.dcfpi.org), which conducts research on tax, budget, and policy issues that affect low- and moderate-income residents.