The Texas Department of Criminal Justice releases about 2,400 inmates to Travis County each year. Absent a job and a place to live, far too many of them will go back again.
It seems intuitive enough that stable employment would help reduce the area’s recidivism rates. And doing so could have wide-ranging economic and workforce benefits — everything from the gains that employed workers produce, to the money saved on incarceration and public-welfare costs.
Despite the upside, though, an intractable set of real and perceived barriers keep many people with criminal records out of work.
To employers, said David Kirk, a sociology professor at the University of Texas, “that record may signal there’s a little bit more risk in hiring them, that they’re a little less trustworthy.”
Research shows this perceived risk is overstated, Kirk said, but even companies that gladly hire ex-offenders can run into some challenges. For example, occupational licensing rules strip credentials from many offenders, making it difficult if not impossible for them to resume their careers.
No one knows precisely how many of the Austin metro area’s unemployed workers have criminal records, but stubbornly high recidivism rates here and across the state underscore the need to help former offenders find meaningful employment.
Through the first nine months of this year, the Austin Police Department arrested 24,000 different people, according to Kirk’s analysis of Krimelabb data. More than half of them had been arrested at least one other time since 2007 — and almost 10 percent had been arrested at least 10 times.
While Austin’s violent- and property-crime rates have dropped sharply over that time span, recidivism rates are stuck at high levels.
For younger offenders, having a job appears to have little effect on recidivism, Kirk said this month at a UT Opportunity Forum panel on “fair chance” hiring. But for former offenders at least 27 years old, he said, having a steady job dropped recidivism rates by 24 percent — with the improvement growing for older workers and those with shorter criminal histories.
In Austin, the Reentry Roundtable hopes to take advantage of that trend. A local coalition that works to help smooth ex-offender’s transitions, the Roundtable has made increasing employment one of its chief priorities, along with behavioral health and housing, said current chair Laura Sovine.
Sovine recently put together a presentation designed to educate local employers about the available tax credits and other benefits they can tap into by employing ex-offenders, noting also the benefit for the workers’ families and for the community as a whole.
She sent the presentation around to some friends and colleagues to get feedback. The consensus, she said, was that few employers would care. They’re focused on the bottom line.
Sovine is forging ahead: “I hope there are employers who would want to at least hear our message about what the impact is on the community when you help people who need a second chance.”
In the meantime, she keeps chipping away at behavioral health and affordable housing issues. Along with employment, these three overlapping barriers, play a key role in recidivism rates.
“In real life, you can’t really be stable in employment if you’re homeless,” Sovine said. “It’s really hard to get stability if you don’t have a place to lay your head.”
Austin’s scarce supply of affordable housing is having an especially notable impact on employment prospects for ex-offenders, Kirk’s research shows. Released inmates are increasingly living in the eastern and southeastern portions of Travis County—farther from the concentrated core of jobs and services.
Not only does that stretch ex-offenders’ access to critical resources, it shifts more of the burden for providing those resources to outlying communities, such as Manor and Pflugerville.
Like the metro area’s soaring suburban poverty rates, Kirk said, “we’re basically seeing a suburbanization of prisoner reentry.”
Ban the box?
Local and state lawmakers have taken up the challenge, passing legislation they hope will increase employment rates for former offenders.
One key proposal passed during the 2013 session: a law that helps shield employers from liability if an employed former inmate commits a crime. In the 2015 session, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition hopes to extend similar protections to landlords, hoping to open up more housing options for ex-offenders.
The coalition has also thrown its weight behind proposals that would delay some employee background checks and create a central clearinghouse for the bulk dissemination of criminal records. The latter bill would ensure that public records are accurate and give people an avenue to challenge inaccuracies, said Sarah Pahl, a policy attorney with the group.
With the start of the session less than two months away, the time might be ripe for these types of bills. State lawmakers are starting to pay more scrutiny to the high cost of incarceration, said Travis County Judge-elect Sarah Eckhardt, and a growing number believe rehabilitation could provide a less costly and more-effective alternative.
The liberal bastion that is Travis County and Austin has already moved several steps along that direction, including the elimination of criminal history questions on application forms for city and county jobs. Proponents have pushed these “ban the box” efforts as a way to help former offenders at least get a foot in the door.
Other local efforts have taken that even farther.
“We want to stand ‘ban the box’ on its head,” said Bill Brice, security and maintenance director for the Downtown Austin Alliance.
The alliance actively hires a variety of workers who tend to face higher barriers to employment, including people who are homeless or have criminal records, Brice said. Rather than ban the box, he said, he and his colleagues want to know about an applicant’s criminal history so they can help accommodate his or her needs.
In some cases, Brice said at the panel, he becomes a sort of a case manager in addition to just running his department.
In fact, a growing number of employers in Central Texas are following the alliance’s lead and opening up to the idea of hiring ex-offenders, said Margo Dover, executive director of Skillpoint Alliance, which provides career-training programs.
“It’s not the burning issue it was in my world a few years ago,” Dover said. “I’m not out there fighting with employers to give our graduates a chance.”
But getting even more employers to hire ex-offenders will require more than just banning the box, Dover said. Companies need to retrain people who do interviews, so a criminal history doesn’t immediately become an excuse to disqualify someone.
Most ex-offenders simply want a stable job and a chance to start down or return to a career they find meaningful. For those who do find that stability, income and purpose, the likelihood of returning to prison plummets.
“It feels like they’re giving back to people they’ve hurt through their actions,” Dover said, “It allows them to make their lives healthier.”
“And then,” she said, “they’re just as good an employee as any other.”