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Offender Workforce Development Aims to Cut Recidivism
Men and women freed from federal prison into supervised release are three to
five times more likely to return to prison if they don’t have a job.
That reality is spurring a growing cottage industry within federal probation
offices across the country to help ex-offenders turn their lives around by
preparing them to join the workforce, and to attract employers willing to give
them that opportunity.
“Because nearly 97 percent of those sent to prison will return to their
communities, it is our obligation to help those released become productive
citizens,” said Doug Burris, chief probation officer for the Eastern District of
Missouri. “The foundation for successful reentry is meaningful employment.”
His office was one of several sponsors in April of the second annual National
Offender Workforce Development Conference, a three-day event in St. Louis
attended by some 400 federal, state, and local officials.
Replete with workshops that offered practical advice, the conference also
served as a rallying point. “You stand with the poor and the voiceless and the
powerless,” the Rev. Gregory Boyle, founder of the Los Angeles-based Jobs For a
Future, told conference attendees. “You choose to stand with the demonized, so
the demonizing will stop.”
U.S. Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin, another keynote speaker, said
workforce development efforts, if successful, will bring about three desirable
- Fewer people returning to prison
- Less taxpayer money spent to prosecute and incarcerate repeat offenders.
- Fewer people victimized by repeat offenders.
Citing shrinking financial resources, Lappin said, “We cannot afford to
invest in programs that do not reduce recidivism.”
He projected that the 190,000 inmates currently in the federal prison system
will be joined by more than 7,500 more per year over the next three years. By
2011, he said, the system will hold 220,000 to 225,000 men and women. (About 2
million prisoners currently are in state and local custody. Each year, more than
650,000 inmates are released from federal and state prisons to return to their
Convincing those inmates to break their personal cycle of failure by
preparing for the foreign world of 9-to-5 is a challenge. But so, too, is
helping locate the type of employment that will lift them to new lives. Not
every minimum-wage position can do that.
“They want to talk about jobs but we tell them about careers,” said Janie
Propst, a probation officer in the Western District of North Carolina. “At the
same time, we're trying to get business people in the communities to understand
the importance of hiring ex-offenders. In workforce development, you often hear
the words ‘partnering,’ ‘collaborating’ and ‘networking.’ Probation offices need
to compile a list of second-chance employers in their communities.”
Kathleen Oakar, a probation officer in the Northern District of Ohio, knows
how difficult finding such employers can be.
“Holding a job fair can be a disservice if the jobs are not there,” she said.
“We held a series of luncheons with employers, explaining how ex-offenders are
bonded; how those employees are going to have someone watching them. Getting
judges involved is essential in attracting some employers.”
Examples of enthusiasm abound: Several probation offices reported creating
clothes closets—a collection of donated business attire for ex-offenders to wear
when they attend career fairs or job interviews. Other probation offices have
partnered with a national organization that teaches people how to live within a
budget and to save.
Virtually all workforce development by federal probation and pretrial
services offices is carried out by officers with full caseloads. But help is
available. The Administrative Office's Office of Probation and Pretrial Services
(OPPS) has joined forces with the Justice Department's National Institute of
Corrections, the Bureau of Prisons, the Department of Labor and the Legal Action
Center's HIRE Network in an effort to enhance career-oriented employment
opportunities for ex-offenders.
“Developing partnerships with industries and employers is a key component,"
said Migdalia Baerga-Buffler, a probation and pretrial services administrator in
OPPS. ASo are conducting skill assessments and providing industry-related
To learn more about offender workforce development, visit the Federal Judiciary’s web site.