Congress Must Invest Now in Jobs for Justice-Impacted Individuals

Aug 02, 2021   |  By Kenneth Edwards

"Congress must take action and make sure workforce investment and subsidized employment pass in economic recovery legislation being debated in D.C."

In the American Jobs Plan, President Biden calls for a $100B workforce investment, including prioritizing justice-impacted individuals and subsidized employment as a proven training tool. As someone who has been there, it’s welcome news for the Administration to recognize just how hard it is for anyone with a history of incarceration to get a job.

Now Congress must take action and make sure workforce investment and subsidized employment pass in economic recovery legislation being debated in D.C. An equitable recovery for the nation depends on it.

In 2007, I was one of the more than 600,000 individuals who return home from prison each year. I was incarcerated at age 17 and came home when I was 34. While incarcerated, I sought out a variety of jobs, thinking they would open doorways to sustainable, long-term employment when I returned home. But after my release from prison, I interviewed for many entry-level positions and couldn’t get a job despite trying very hard.

My parole officer suggested that I try employment via the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO). Through what’s called a transitional job, I had the opportunity to come back to my community and gain paid work experience as part of CEO’s partnership with the local department of transportation in New York. I worked for the first time as an adult and getting a paycheck soon after my release afforded me the stability I needed.

As I successfully moved from subsidized job status to unsubsidized employment in the maintenance field, the staff at CEO stayed in touch with me for a year. Frankly, my retention specialist knew that maintenance wasn’t my dream job, but a counseling career was. He helped me navigate a path so that I could get a promotion with my current employer while working on experience applicable to my preferred field. I learned how I could both lead workers installing windows and communicate with administrative staff in the front office.

CEO’s public partnerships facilitate consistent transitional employment opportunities to individuals in 31 cities across 12 states. In Colorado Springs and Denver, about 70% of individuals employed by CEO are enrolled in SNAP Employment & Training, and as a result, CEO offers support for commuting costs and additional training opportunities. Our transitional job partnership with the state Department of Transportation creates a pipeline of workers to permanently join the state’s efforts to restore bridges and keep Colorado’s public spaces safe and clean.

Having a transitional job allowed me to enter the workforce and show everything that I have to offer. In fact, research shows this model reduces reconviction rates by 22 percent compared to job training services alone, and participating individuals are more likely to still be employed one and three years post-incarceration release. As Congress now deliberates over every dollar spent, subsidized employment should be prioritized to connect individuals with a job during the economic recovery, and improve racial equity opportunities across states.

In my current role, I work with participants, 80% of whom identify as Black and people of color, to advocate for policy change directly with lawmakers. The teaching and leadership skills I use started in a transitional job. My story shows what successful reentry into the workforce can look like. But to make sure the 1 in 3 Americans with a criminal record won’t be left out of economic recovery, Congress must invest in us now by prioritizing workforce investment and a national subsidized employment program.

Kenneth Edwards is a Leadership and Organizing Specialist at the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO). CEO has connected individuals returning home from prison with employment in Colorado since 2017.