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For People Just Leaving Prison, a Novel Sort of Support: Money

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Alwin Jacob Smith became a free man last summer after being locked up for 21 years due to what he calls “my little old rocky past” — most notably, robbery and drug possession.

He worked hard while incarcerated, getting an associate degree in ministry, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and substance abuse support groups, and eventually leading those groups as a peer mentor. Mr. Smith’s release, which he celebrated with a steak-and-eggs breakfast, got here about through a California law that permits prosecutors to re-evaluate sentences to find out whether or not they were excessive — in his case, 65 years to life.

And when he was finally released, Mr. Smith, 52, was given an unexpected type of support in his transition: money.

The pandemic, which devastated inmates in prisons and jails, made employment even tougher as hundreds were released on the very moment that entry-level jobs evaporated in industries like service and construction. A novel initiative generally known as the Returning Citizen Stimulus began offering money to people just released from prison, and advocates say it’s essentially the most straightforward and revolutionary solution.

The money transfers — a median of $2,750 over three months — have been contingent on achieving certain goals on the technique to employment. This system is the brainchild of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a Latest York-based nonprofit group that gives paid transitional employment, job counseling and related services for people across the country who’ve just been released from prison.

In April 2020, the organization began distributing money to some 10,500 former inmates who, like Mr. Smith, lacked recent work histories and subsequently didn’t qualify for federal pandemic relief checks. The payments were doled out through partner organizations in 28 cities and 6 states, including Colorado, Latest York and Oklahoma. The newest installment is a collaboration with For the People, a California nonprofit organization that helps ease the discharge of individuals serving what have been deemed unduly long sentences — amongst them Mr. Smith.

The money allowed him to pay for an expensive repair to an old Honda Accord, donated by his church. Fixing the automotive’s engine was crucial in helping Mr. Smith travel to interviews and land a job earning $17 an hour at a big-box store. He got a state ID, opened a checking account and, on the initiative’s request, attended anger-management and job-readiness classes. “I wouldn’t be afloat immediately,” he said, if not for the monetary lifeline. “It gives you encouragement and motivation to stand up and get out and achieve.”

The Returning Citizen payments join a number of reforms — including the sealing of criminal records and “Ban the Box” laws, which eliminate questions on criminal history on job applications, delaying them until later in the method — which have begun to open recent possibilities for so-called second likelihood employees. It’s a notion that’s being embraced by a growing roster of firms and has been expanding by necessity due to the current labor shortages.

Once a fringe idea, the notion of offering money to assist people get on their feet has been buoyed by initiatives including a outstanding experiment in Stockton, Calif., which gave 125 residents of low-income neighborhoods $500 a month for 2 years. The cash helped lots of them find full-time employment, a study showed, and it inspired similar pilots in not less than 11 U.S. cities.

But giving money to people released from prison during a pandemic was a recent frontier. The initiative was intended to deal with what Sam Schaeffer, the Center for Employment Opportunities’ executive director, calls “the steeplechase of barriers” people face after an extended incarceration: learning the way to use a cellphone, send an email and get a driver’s license, not to say finding a job and a spot to live.

They typically emerge with nothing but “gate money” — $10 to $200 depending on the state — often accompanied by debts that may include restitution to their victims.

The online result has been called “post-conviction poverty,” a predicament compounded for the disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino Americans who’re incarcerated. In accordance with the Brennan study, people who find themselves imprisoned as young adults could have lost a median of $484,000 in earnings by the top of their working lives.

For those living on the sting who teeter into criminal behavior, receiving money during a critical transitional period could be a stabilizing force.

Amber Helphingstine, 37, as an example, was living within the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles and spent two years in jail for assault. She found a Latest Way of Life, a widely known re-entry program for girls.

“I needed to lie, cheat and steal for what I wanted,” she said of her pre-incarcerated mind-set. The Returning Citizen payments she received through this system “helped me dot my i’s and cross my t’s,” she said. “It made me realize, “Hey, I actually have the chance and the means to do something else with my life.” She is now a detox specialist at a recovery center and an honors student at a community college.

Heather Fitzsimmons, 39, a money recipient in Denver, was a physician assistant with a house and a family but headed down a slippery slope after she was prescribed opioids for postpartum depression and psychosis — winding up addicted, homeless and out and in of jail.

But looking back, she says her felony arrest in 2019 for check fraud and possession of a controlled substance was “the very best thing that ever happened to me.” Probation officers directed her right into a residential drug treatment program, and she or he has been sober ever since.

The money assistance helped her pay $1,650 in court fines and rent for her apartment. She now works at a rescue mission for people who find themselves homeless, as she had been for six years, providing encouragement and attempting to break through the shame that invariably accrues.

Updated 

July 6, 2022, 2:11 p.m. ET

The cash “is a life-changing gift they provided, truthfully,” she said.

The $24.5 million Returning Residents program was funded by Blue Meridian Partners, a collaborative of philanthropic heavy hitters. An ongoing evaluation suggests that up to now, the money payments have had a positive effect on employment: Forty-two percent of recipients were working five months in.

Many are incarcerated at 18 or 19, “ages once they’re presupposed to be integrating into the economy,” said Jay Jordan, vice chairman of the Alliance for Safety and Justice and the national director of TimeDone, a nonprofit group that helps former inmates with record clearance and other issues. “It’s OK, cool,” he said of the $2,750 payments unfolded over three months. “However it doesn’t pay for last month’s rent.”

Mr. Jordan, 36, embodies lots of the nuanced challenges faced by those coming home. The daddy of two young boys, his conviction at age 19 for first-degree robbery means he cannot volunteer at his children’s school or coach a soccer team. He and his wife cannot join a home-owner’s association. “It makes me feel dirty,” he said. “It’s dignity that’s lost. You’re not a full citizen.”

Research has long demonstrated a link between employment and reduced rates of recidivism. Nevertheless, a gantlet of collateral consequences persist.

Background checks, a $2 billion industry, are conducted by some 95 percent of U.S. employers. But state criminal databases can include things they shouldn’t, like tax liens and other civil matters, in addition to records of individuals whose charges were dropped or who were found innocent, which might nevertheless hurt an applicant’s probabilities.

“Discrimination isn’t evidence-based,” said Colleen McCormack-Maitland, a senior lawyer with the Legal Motion Center in Latest York. “It’s based on fear.”

Some initiatives go further than money assistance in tackling longstanding social and criminal justice issues. Ban the Box laws have been adopted by 37 states, a plethora of cities and counties and most federal agencies and contractors. Nine states have enacted “clean slate” laws, which remove a spread of convictions from the general public domain and databases utilized by employers for many jobs. And pushes to seal criminal records and alter occupational licensing laws are allowing former inmates to pursue once-off-limits professions, like embalmer and social employee.

There are signs that employers’ attitudes are starting to shift, too. Driven by the tight labor market, once-dubious executives are actually counting on those whose personal histories could also be in stark contrast to their very own.

“It’s gone from an ethical imperative to a business imperative,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., the chief executive and president of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Villara Constructing Systems outside Sacramento, which manufacturers heating and plumbing systems, as an example, found itself with an enormous demand for personnel due to a boom in residential construction.

To handle critical labor shortages, the corporate’s president, Rick Wylie, who emphasizes his Christian faith, gravitated to “an untapped labor pool that the majority of the marketplace isn’t considering or able to addressing.”

He began a program called Latest Start and recruited Cory Henderson, 52, who spent three years in prison for grand theft auto, to steer it. Mr. Wylie was bracing for questions on why he was hiring former inmates. But, he thought, “if we will get our company’s leaders to learn the way to work with the difficult needs of returning residents, who need a bit more care, we’ll be so a lot better with the regular population.”

Many firms regard such hires as “employees of last resort,” said Jeffrey D. Korzenik, chief investment strategist for Fifth Third Bancorp and the creator of “Untapped Talent: How Second Likelihood Hiring Works for Your Business and the Community.” Businesses committed to hiring this population “need to approach this with, for lack of a greater word, intention,” he said.

Second-chance hiring got an enormous boost last yr with the Second Likelihood Business Coalition, co-founded by Jamie Dimon, the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, and Craig Arnold, the chief executive of Eaton Corporation, an electrical equipment manufacturer.

In a Guest Opinion essay for The Latest York Times last yr, Mr. Dimon said it was “an ethical outrage” that just about half of formerly incarcerated people were unemployed one yr after leaving prison.

Christopher Watler, the Center for Employment Opportunities’ chief external affairs officer, believes that, as with climate change, investor pressure will convert more firms to second-chance employment as a necessity for racial justice. “You can’t be serious about Blacks in America and never open up jobs for individuals with past convictions,” he said. “However it’s a challenge we have now not made loads of demonstrable progress on.”

In California, Alwin Smith continues to work on the big-box store. Now a cashier’s assistant, he enjoys hobnobbing and joking with customers. He claims that he even has fun refolding clothes customers have strewn all around the floor and picking up discarded diapers and other trash from the car parking zone.

He credits the money assistance program for keeping him grounded while helping him pay for food, clothing and other essentials. Along along with his faith, it helped him maintain an upbeat attitude. “The day is what you make of it,” he said. “I actually have the privilege to give you the option to stand up and go to work, to make any person smile or be in a superb spirit by my presence. That’s a blessing in and of itself.”

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