Job prospects are bleak for anyone with a criminal record in California, and the current economic downturn makes it even tougher. Nearly eight million residents have criminal records, and the numbers are growing.
The need to find gainful employment for this disadvantaged group is urgent: the state could release up to 40,000 prisoners over the next two years, by court order. If trends are any indication, 60 percent to 80 percent of them will be unemployed one year after release.
But a new report from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law recommends ways the state can reverse that trend.
The law school’s Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice has released “Reaching a Higher Ground: Increasing Employment Opportunities for People with Prior Convictions.” The report is a compilation of the best ideas from police officers, unions, government officials, employers and academics.
“Increasing employment opportunities for people with criminal records isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” said center Executive Director Andrea Russi. “Communities are stronger when their residents have jobs; recidivism rates drop and costs decrease across the board for police, courts, and prisons.”
In the past three decades, California’s prison population has shot up more than 580 percent to about 168,000 prisoners. Sixty-six percent of its parolees return to prison within three years of release—more than 20 percent higher than the national average. But better job opportunities could reverse that downward spiral.
John Shegerian, CEO of Fresno-based Electronic Recyclers and a report advisor, said the design of any jobs or training initiative needs to involve employers. “At the end of the day, the employer makes the decision to hire. A training program has to teach skills that are essential to the daily operation of a participating company—be it in construction, trucking, or manufacturing.”
Report author and program director of the law school’s Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, Sarah Lawrence, said employees who’ve served time in prison must be job-ready. “People with prior convictions need to learn the soft skills such as arriving on time everyday, having good communication skills, and accepting responsibility,” she said.
Reaching a Higher Ground includes core recommendations that fall into three categories: skill development, job creation, and background checks.
Most prisoners are less educated than the general public and have fewer marketable skills. Adult basic education, secondary education, and vocational training programs have proven effective if well designed and led by properly trained staff, according to the report.
Job creation requires engaging private employers as strategic partners in shaping training programs and supporting local job creating strategies that leverage government-funded employment programs.
Finally, the background check industry is growing rapidly, by about 25 percent to 35 percent a year, but without effective oversight or regulations. As a result, more employers are checking applicant backgrounds; more private, non-law enforcement firms have access to criminal records; and there are concerns about the accuracy of information.
Recommendations include enforcing legal standards that regulate background screening and prosecute employers and private firms that violate these laws.
The report is available at www.law.berkeley.edu/bccj.htm.