Updated: Apr 1
In 2016, Illinois saw 71,551 new convictions; of those, 70,610, or 89 percent, were reoffenders headed back to prison. It is anticipated that 96 percent of Illinois prisoners will eventually be released. Seventeen percent will reoffend within a year, while 43 percent will reoffend within three years. (Lyon, E., February 5, 2019)
The principal causes of recidivism
I understand recidivism because I have witnessed it firsthand. So many times, I saw men say their goodbyes to the friends they made in prison, only to return a few months later. I am ashamed to say that when I first experienced this, I was angry with them for coming back. I had all this time left in my sentence, praying every day for my second chance, and they had gotten their chance and wasted it. But then I came to understand that these men didn’t really stand a chance. They were leaving prison with no job, no housing, inadequate support, outdated skills, and limited exposure to technology, and they were returning to the same neighborhoods and the same people with whom they had previously conducted their criminal activity.
The high cost of recidivism to society is staggering
The Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council’s new report finds that the average cost for one incidence of recidivism in Illinois is nearly $151,700. Taxpayers – who fund law enforcement, courts, and incarcerations – shoulder about one-third, or nearly $51,000, of the cost. The report estimates that these instances of recidivism will cost the state a total of $13 billion over the next five years.
Reducing the overall recidivism rate by just 1 percentage point means Illinois would see nearly 600 fewer convictions and save more than $90 million over nine years, the advisory council estimates. Those savings would recover $30 million in taxpayer dollars, $45 million in costs to victims, and $15 million in foregone economic activity. (Caruso, V., August 3, 2018)
A job by itself isn’t enough
Certainly, employment is a major factor in allowing individuals to avoid the revolving door back into prison and successfully reintegrate into society. However, a job by itself is not enough. Individuals need a place to live, positive people to associate with, and a sense of purpose in their lives, the same as everyone else.
Unexpectedly, my career has become helping the currently and formerly incarcerated population of which I am a member. Our organization, 2nd Opportunity L3C, provides programs for those inside jails and prisons as well as those on the outside who are formerly incarcerated and struggling to get traction in their lives. We participate in creating a referral network of employment, housing, substance abuse counseling, and other essential support services for those returning to society and seeking to rebuild their lives and relationships.
Improving an outdated skill set
Re-entrance into the workforce after a prolonged absence presents a series of challenges. An outdated skill set, the emergence of new industries, and evolving technologies render much of what we previously knew obsolete. In addition to a conviction in our background, we simply don’t have the current skills for which the market is willing to pay. To get an idea of how overwhelming technology can be for us, consider the countless iterations and upgrades that inevitably took place during the 12 years I was incarcerated – and the fact that I never participated in the evolution. I used a smartphone for the first time on July 6, 2017, when I was handed an iPhone with FaceTime on display in the palm in my hand. I felt like I had landed in an episode of “The Jetsons.” I am still challenged with Google Docs, Netflix, the TV remote, and a host of other things. Reading about technology hardly prepares us to use technology.
I am empathetic to those coming to the workforce with a limited or outdated skill set; I am also realistic. I work every day speaking with employers to build a network that will hire from the populations we serve. I routinely say that if you are ready, willing, and able to work, we can refer you to an employer that will hire you.
However, entry-level positions pay $13 an hour, give or take 50 cents. While this may be a good starting point, it is not likely that this wage will provide for the needs of housing, clothing, transportation, insurance, medication, and so on over the long term. The only way to change the trajectory is to improve the skill set. This is done through training and education.
Our process at 2nd Opportunity starts by having our program participants utilize the O*Net Profiler, a tool provided by the U.S. Department of Labor. This helps an individual identify the type of career they would find interesting enough to dedicate their time and energy to. We administer the O*Net profile and provide our participants with the report generated based upon that profile. We then help them establish a Department of Labor “My Next Move” account. We know that finding a career we desire is paramount in professional fulfillment. (See the Venn diagram in Exhibit A below.) It provides challenges and enjoyment, which are major differentiators in one's long-term professional success.
A Parallel Path
“A Parallel Path” is a plan to accomplish two noteworthy objectives at the same time. They are:
Securing a position to provide a steady paycheck, build the “work muscle,” become used to working with others, improve our communication abilities, demonstrate responsibility, and take pride in doing things the right way. These attributes are especially meaningful for someone who is formerly incarcerated and wants to get on the right path.
Enrolling in and completing a training program or educational pursuit. These are programs that build a marketable skill set, in turn providing a better wage, benefits, and mobility.
“A Parallel Path” has been able to place individuals in a morning training program and combine that with a second-shift job. Yes, it is a lot of work, and yes, it requires some sacrifices. However, the payoff is a career path that opens doors and leads individuals away from the cycle of recidivism.
Types of programs
There is a litany of federal- and state-funded programs that are available to provide high-quality training and assistance, with job placement upon completion. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act is designed to strengthen and improve our nation's public workforce system by helping Americans – including youth and those with significant barriers to employment – get into high-quality jobs and careers and by helping employers hire and retain skilled workers. The program teaches high-demand skills such as welding, logistics, healthcare billing, CDL, and various other fields of interest.
There are also programs available under the Workforce Equity Initiative, which focuses on developing Illinois’ workforce by providing participants with a credential and a living wage. It addresses high-demand careers and targets low-income individuals, those living in high-crime and high-poverty areas, unemployed individuals, and minorities. The initiative is generally run through community colleges.
Some popular programs included in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Workforce Equity Initiative are:
Forklift operator training
Supply chain management
Most programs are designed to provide certification in three to four months. Exhibit B, below, illustrates the impact on income over a 10-year period, not adjusted for inflation.
Opportunities while incarcerated
The Department of Labor provides apprenticeship programs inside many prisons, and I encourage people to take advantage of these opportunities if possible. Self-respect, mental challenges, and hope for the future are just a few of the benefits they can provide individuals during incarceration. I attained an apprenticeship in quality assurance while working in a Unicor glove-manufacturing facility during the time I was away. In my essay “The Hidden Value of Apprenticeships,” I elaborate how apprenticeships can be a significant tool in the reduction of recidivism.
‘A Parallel Path’ and its role in society
There is and has been a severe shortage of entry-level employment candidates in large sectors of the economy. Fully implemented, our model creates pipelines of employees to solve the very real problem of a lack of quality employees. The Parallel Path not only creates a flow of candidates seeking to prove themselves – who, according to a recent study by the ACLU, have a lower turnover rate than those without a conviction in their background – it also allows companies to support ongoing training and the development of additional skills to benefit both the employee and the company. (Please read my upcoming blog post “Collaboration for Social Benefit” for an explanation of the multitude of stakeholders who are favorably impacted by “A Parallel Path.”)
‘A Parallel Path’ summary
The “Parallel Path” model provides both obvious and unexpected benefits through a multitude of levels within society. The first, and most obvious, benefit is to the taxpayers, victims, and institutions that shoulder the load and the cost of recidivism. Having spent a lot of time on the inside, and now working in this field on the outside, I can categorically say that there are many things that can be done to reduce recidivism both pre- and post-release from prison.
Second, we know that 96 percent of those who are incarcerated will one day re-enter society. We are your neighbors, we see you at the grocery store, we sit next to you in church, we cheer alongside you at our children’s sporting events. When we are released, we don’t wear a sign around our necks that says, “Formerly Incarcerated.” It should widely be accepted as a starting point that everyone benefits if incarcerated individuals return to society as a motivated and determined group seeking to fit in and provide for our families.
Third, formerly incarcerated individuals can fill a role solving the lack of entry-level employees as we use training programs to improve our skill sets, enabling us to contribute to companies at a higher level.
Fourth, it is advantageous to begin reentry work during incarceration with a focus on life skills, employment readiness, and developing a plan to move forward.
Finally, it is important to have peer support groups and mentoring programs to assist those who are reentering society. 2nd Opportunity coordinates and conducts these support groups by utilizing those with lived experience who have demonstrated the ability to successfully reintegrate into society.
These are the programs and support 2nd Opportunity specifically provides in working with the currently and formerly incarcerated population.
Caruso, V, August 3, 2018, Report: Recidivism to Cost Illinois Over $13B Over the Next 5 years, Illinois Policy, http s://www.illinoispolicy.org/report-recidivism-to-cost-illinois-more-than-13b-over-next-5-years/
Lyon, E., February 5, 2019, Illinois Calculates the High Costs of Recidivism, Prison Legal News, https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2019/feb/5/illinois-calculates-high-costs-recidivism/#:~:text=It%20is%20anticipated%20that%2096,reoffenders%20headed%20back%20to%20prison.