It’s been less than a year since President Trump signed the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, into law. But this month, Trump publicly announced a new, equally audacious goal for his administration: reducing the unemployment rate of formerly incarcerated individuals to single digits within the next five years. “Too often, former inmates are not considered for jobs even if they’re qualified, rehabilitated, and ready to work,” Trump said. “And that’s why we’re taking crucial steps to encourage business[es] to expand second chance hiring practices.”

The Bureau of Prisons recently announced “Ready to Work” initiative is one of those steps. The goal of this new initiative is to connect employers to individuals re-entering society who are seeking employment. While this is a noteworthy start, dramatically reducing the unemployment rateamong the formerly incarcerated — which at times has been higher than that experienced by Americans during the Great Depression — will take even earlier intervention.

One of the best ways to encourage second-chance hiring (the hiring of those with a criminal record) is to give incarcerated individuals the opportunity to start working with private employers while they are behind bars. Indeed, to drastically cut the unemployment rate among the formerly incarcerated — and, in turn, to improve public safety — the Trump administration should look for ways to expand access to high-quality, well-paid employment opportunities behind bars through public-private partnerships at all levels of government.

Offering well-crafted employment opportunities to those behind bars can provide immediate and long-term benefits to those in prison and to the communities to which they will return. Whereas typical prison jobs can pay less than a dollar per hour, individuals employed through partnerships with private employers earn, at minimum, the prevailing wage for their work. Some of this money can be used for personal needs, financial obligations such as restitution, and to start a savings account to be used upon release. While working inside prison or jail, individuals have a chance not only to learn new skills, but to establish a proven track record that can lead to continued work for the same employer upon release.

Communities also benefit when individuals work with private employers while behind bars. Research suggests that high-qualitysteadyemployment for the formerly incarcerated can translate into increased public safety through reductions in recidivism. And when formerly incarcerated individuals quickly return to work, the community also profits from increased economic output and greater tax revenue.

Public-private employment partnerships behind bars already exist but, for the most part, are only available to a small segment of the incarcerated population. This is due in part to the fact that, under federal law, prison-made goods are not allowed to be sold on the open, interstate market — with the exception of goods produced through the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP).

Through PIECP, certain private businesses can establish joint ventures with prison industries to produce goods or services. Incarcerated individuals who participate are paid the prevailing wage for that sector of employment (with possible deductions made for taxes, room and board, victim compensation and other expenses). PIECP offers some of the highest wages for work behind bars, but as of this March, only about 5,000 individuals were employed through the program.

Additionally, depending on the state, some private companies may be able to work directly with state or local corrections agencies to develop employment outside of PIECP. But again, these programs are all too rare. Whether through or outside of PIECP, incarcerated individuals would benefit from more opportunities to work with employers in high-skilled sectors — which could lead to steady, well-paid employment on the outside.

Rather than simply connecting individuals to employment opportunities that begin upon release, the Trump administration and the “Ready to Work” initiative should work with private employers to establish more high quality employment programs for people behind bars. These programs should then lead to a reasonable chance of continued employment when incarcerated individuals reenter society. By establishing these programs, more incarcerated individuals will be able to reintegrate into their communities more smoothly, and businesses will have a greater opportunity to reach an untapped pool of talented individuals eager to prove themselves worthy of being full members of society.

As President Trump stated, “We believe in the dignity of work and the pride of a paycheck.” There is no reason to deny these dignities from individuals able and willing to work, even while they are still incarcerated.

Image credit: Angelo Gilardelli

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