Text Size -A+

May 2006

  • print
  • FAQs

This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


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 results:

  • 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 communities.)

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 training.”

To learn more about offender workforce development, visit the Federal Judiciary’s web site.