Instead of training and counseling, Newark is trying work first—with promising results
Hector Morales might not seem, at first, to be an American success story. At age 50, he works the graveyard shift—7 p.m. to 5 a.m.—at the back of a garbage truck, part of a three-man crew that lifts and loads 80,000 pounds of waste each night in New York City. Its his first job in years. The native of Paterson, N.J., a high-school dropout, still owes more than $9,000 in child-support payments to the state of New Jersey.
But compared with Mr. Moraless situation a year ago, his story is a success.
Then, he was completing a five-year sentence at the Northern State Prison in Newark, N.J. The former heroin addict has spent, by his own estimate, 18 years behind bars, mostly on drug-related charges. Today, Newark-based Action Carting, one of the largest commercial disposal firms operating in New York, considers Mr. Morales to be a model employee and a good prospect for promotion if he completes his plan to get a commercial truck drivers license. Currently, hes on track to earn more than $60,000 a year, including overtime. Every week, part of his check goes to pay off his child-support debt.
Part of the change is due to Mr. Moraless own attitude. "I got tired of being in jail, tired of officers controlling my life, tired of being the wrong kind of role model for my children," he says.
His success says much about an unusual intervention by Newark. In April 2009, with the help of the Manhattan Institute (a think tank where I work that occasionally collaborates with local governments), the city established the Office of Reentry, which pushes ex-offenders toward "rapid attachment to work." Theyre referred to one of several job-placement programs, which help them with interviewing skills and send them to employers.
This fast-track approach isnt typical. For the newly released, the usual approach might be called services first—offering job training, drug treatment and help finding housing, all thought to necessarily precede job-seeking. The results often havent been tracked and overall have been disappointing, based on recidivism data.
Now, programs that emphasize work first have begun to sprout up around the country, typically run by nonprofit groups.
Theyre trying to address a problem of unappreciated national importance: prisoner re-entry. More than 700,000 prisoners are released from state and federal institutions every year, from an average prison population of over 1.6 million. There are another 700,000 in local jails. Some denounce this as "mass incarceration," some credit it with reducing crime—but not enough have focused on the problems of prisoners returning to society.
Although states spend significant amounts of money on criminal justice—its second only to Medicaid in state budgets—the vast majority of those costs go toward prisons, with limited emphasis on preparing prisoners for life on the outside. The costs of incarceration include an annual $82 billion spent on corrections nationwide, including millions for oversight of parole systems overseeing the 75% of prisoners released short of their full sentences.
Newark isnt alone in its experimental approach. In New York, the Center for Employment Opportunity has placed ex-offenders in "transitional jobs," short-term work often supported by government funds to help prepare those involved for eventual private employment. In Houston, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program starts to prepare inmates while theyre still behind bars to think of themselves as entrepreneurs.
So far the Newark program has seen 1,800 ex-offenders (all of whom sought help voluntarily), and placed 1,090 in private, unsubsidized jobs. While New Jerseys Department of Corrections estimates that 50% of those released from prison will be rearrested for a new crime within nine months, the Newark office has seen only 29% rearrested—and believes that figure to be exaggerated by arrests which do not lead to charges. (The best national estimate, prepared by the Pew Center on the States, puts the comparable national recidivism rate at 43.3%.)
In Newark, an estimated 1 in 6 residents has, at one point, been arrested. Mayor Cory Booker has long talked about the importance of assisting ex-offenders, if only as part of the crime reduction he sees as the foundation of Newarks economic renewal.
The Office of Reentry works with five job-placement programs, which develop relationships with employers, help ex-offenders get basic identification and teach them how to dress and conduct themselves in an interview.
The experience shows that, even in the teeth of a bad economy, those who may seem like the least employable job candidates have found work: as cooks and kitchen aides in restaurants, as forklift operators in warehouses adjacent to Newarks port, on the night shift at convenience stores, packing deliveries at a paint distribution center.
Even with its successes, the Newark experience has made clear how daunting the task can be. Among those who have gotten jobs through the program, 30% left those jobs within six months. Ex-offenders often have "multiple issues," says Ingrid Johnson, who directs the Office of Reentry. But she adds that once they do have a job, theyre more likely to have the means and motivation to address their problems. "Typically, they really want to work," she says.
The line between success and failure can be terribly thin—even between employment and crime. Leon Jenkins, 41 years old, had served three-plus years in three separate jail and prison terms before coming to the Office of Reentry, which enrolled him a city-funded eight-week "transitional jobs" program cleaning some of Newarks many vacant lots for the nonprofit Greater Newark Conservancy.
Yet Mr. Jenkins came perilously close to pursuing his previous occupation as a drug dealer. After completing the transitional jobs program, the father of four found himself without work, without prospects and with back child-support arrearages of more than $45,000. When he got the call offering him the job interview, he says, he had just spoken to his former heroin supplier. "I was on my way out the door and back to the street," he says.
Today, Mr. Jenkins is a full-time employee of the Greater Newark Conservancy, helping to farm open land in the city and acquaint school groups with plants and agriculture.
As promising as the effort is in Newark, its a tiny one. How might Newarks small-scale success translate across the country?
With budgets pressed and new grants unlikely, the key is to find ways to spend the criminal-justice funds already appropriated every year in ways aimed at getting ex-offenders into jobs, supporting their families and marrying the mothers of their children.
It would help if prisons made sure prisoners left with official government IDs. It would also help to develop better incentives for parole officers to help ex-offenders find and keep jobs—and for ex-offenders to want to get and keep them. (One possibility is reducing the time under supervision as a reward for staying in a job.) And it would help to ease the payment terms for back child support—and suspend its increase during the term of imprisonment—so as not to discourage work.
Ex-offenders, of course, arent a victim group—but theyre surely a tragic one, and one with whom we all will increasingly live. "Re-entry" doesnt have an attractive face: Those being helped, after all, often committed violent crimes. At the same time, in the millions, they will be among us.
As for Mr. Morales, in July he took the first paid vacation of his life.
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