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As many as 1 in 3 Americans have criminal records, and for those 70 to 100 million Americans who have been arrested or convicted of a crime, barriers to employment cause a serious threat to their successful reentry. Recidivism rates remain high in California, with approximately 46 percent of formerly-incarcerated individuals facing a new conviction within three years of their release. While recidivism rates are a limited measure of reentry outcomes, they can provide some insight into the challenges faced by people during their return to the community. 

Among the various barriers a person faces in reentry, employment stands as one of the most important influences in decreasing a person’s risk of recidivism. Most people returning to the community from jail or prison held jobs prior to their incarceration and have interest in obtaining legal, stable employment upon their release. 

Employment provides benefits to formerly-incarcerated individuals beyond the finances they need to sustain themselves and their families. According to CJCJ’s Director of Community-Based Services Gerald Miller, individuals who struggle to see their own potential can build a sense of self-worth and contribute to their community through meaningful work. Time spent working, he notes, can keep a person out of trouble” by occupying their time, meeting their basic needs, and developing their constructive skills.

Gerald runs CJCJ’s No Violence Alliance (NoVA), an intensive case management program in collaboration with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, which prioritizes employability and employment skills for successful reintegration. Case managers and mentors within NoVA work with program participants to access, apply to, and sustain employment — but improvements in employment policies and workplace culture must match these direct service efforts.

California, along with the majority of U.S. states, has made advances toward fair employment policies for justice-involved individuals in recent years. In 2014, the passage of AB 218 marked the state’s first Ban the Box law which prohibited inquiries by city, county, and state agencies about an applicant’s arrest and conviction history in the early stages of job-seeking. Last year, California became the tenth state to adopt private sector employment reform with AB 1008, which extends various anti-discrimination policies to private employers, delaying background checks and inquiries about an applicant’s criminal record until after a conditional offer of employment is made. In the final half of the 2017 – 18 legislative session, further improvements have been introduced to support criminal justice reform and reentry. 

Notably, SB 1298 (Skinner), the Increasing Access to Employment Act, extends the impact of previous policies by ensuring information released by the Department of Justice and local criminal justice agencies are accurate and recent — generally between two to five years old. Under this bill, the California Workforce Investment Board will receive funding to administer a grant program focused on improving rehabilitation and reentry outcomes for individuals with criminal convictions. Further, transparency and accessibility will be improved by allowing individuals to review their criminal records and challenge any inaccurate or incomplete information.

Increased access to employment for the estimated 8 million Californians with criminal records can lessen the negative impacts of justice system contact and benefit communities across the state. With this, SB 1298 stands among the innovative criminal and juvenile justice bills CJCJ supports in 2018. Such policies for continued criminal justice reform help all of California’s communities thrive.

Related Links:

Ban the Box: Helpful or Harmful?

Back to work: San Francisco reduces unfair barriers to employment