“America wins when citizens with a criminal record can contribute to their communities as law-abiding members of our society.” Those were the words of President Donald Trump, who hosted an event at the White House on June 13 about the need to help people leaving prison find jobs. “When former inmates come home, the single-most important action we can take is to help them find a really, really good job, where they love the job.”
On average, more than 650,000 prisoners are released annually. Thanks to the recently-passed First Step Act, hundreds of additional federal prisoners have been returned home this year and roughly 2,200 others are expected to be released under the law in July. Unfortunately, many of them will face a massive challenge upon their return; the ability to find work. An analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative shows that over 27 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed.
To raise awareness of the problem and highlight the importance of second-chance hiring, the president invited five special guests to the White House. One of them was Safe Streets & Second Chances executive director John Koufos, who shared a story that stuck with him from the time he spent incarcerated.
“When I was in prison — and here I was, this trial lawyer from New Jersey — nobody asked me for money, which was really a surprise in prison. But nearly everybody asked me for a job,” Koufos said at the lectern. “Everyone wanted a job to avoid crime, to reunify with their families, to pay child support. And I never forgot that.”
After Koufos served his sentence and re-entered society, he used his second chance to build a large nonprofit program in New Jersey to help other returning citizens reacclimate back into their communities. That began his journey to leadership on a national stage.
“Without a second chance, I don’t know where I would’ve been,” Koufos continued. “I’m not sure if I could’ve stayed sober. I certainly know I wouldn’t have contributed the level I did.”
“When I was in prison… nobody asked me for money… But nearly everybody asked me for a job.” Last week, Safe Streets & Second Chances’ @jgkoufos was selected to deliver remarks at the @WhiteHouse‘s second chance hiring event. pic.twitter.com/wxOlEE7nTW
— Safe Streets & 2nd Chances (@S3Cproject) June 17, 2019
Kim Kardashian West, arguably the headliner of the event, shared a story that began a little over a year ago. Together with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, she helped convince the president to issue clemency to a 63-year-old grandmother and author named Alice Johnson.
Now studying law, Kardashian West used the event to announce a new partnership with rideshare company Lyft. Through the program, Lyft credits will be made available to formerly incarcerated individuals who need transportation to job interviews, workplaces and to see family members.
“The one thing that I just realized that needed so much support, that I’m happy to help and be supportive where I can, was the re-entry of people coming home and seeing the lack of support that really existed,” Kardashian West said. “Whether it’s housing or the amount of letters that I get with people just needing transportation to job interviews, to jobs — these people want to work. They want the best outcome.”
Kardashian West’s words are indeed, supported by evidence. Research published last year by Florida State University’s Institute of Justice Research and Development found that incarcerated people are eager to work more and take other steps to improve their lives and become rehabilitated.
“Our data suggests that individuals are eager to get back to work after release from prison and build a strong network of personal and community relationships – all keys to positive reentry,” said IJRD Professor Dr. Carrie Pettus-Davis at the time.
While the First Step Act was a great start, the event underscored the need for more steps that help people leaving prison reach their potential by connecting them to quality work opportunities. Sharing the stage with Koufos and Kardashian West, Johnny Taylor, Jr. explained how his organization, the Society for Human Resource Management, is playing a key role. Earlier this year, SHRM partnered with Koch Industries and the Charles Koch Institute to launch Getting Talent Back to Work, a national drive to get employers to consider qualified job applicants with criminal backgrounds.
“What we know is that once people get out, too often … they return because they can’t find a job,” Taylor said. “These aren’t bad people; they’re people who are trying to survive. And we can play a role in that if we can help remove some of the barriers … lead to high levels of recidivism. Again, no one wants to go back.”
To close his speech, Koufos ended on a big note, “Folks,” he said, “this is the public safety issue of our time. This is the justice issue of our time. This is the civil rights issue of our time. And this is the prosperity issue of our time.”