Advocates: Louisiana making progress on prison-to-workforce-reentry, but more work to be done

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

It’s no secret that workers are facing a tough job market.

Restrictions and uncertainties related to the COVID-19 pandemic have many employers considering laying people off, if they haven’t already. Employers who have furloughed employees are wondering when they can bring them back.

And as with most downturns, it’s the people who already were struggling who are in the toughest position, said Will Harrell, a criminal and juvenile justice consultant.

“Poor people are going to be hit the hardest,” he said. “And poor people with criminal convictions, and that’s most people with criminal convictions, are going to be hit harder than that.”

Louisiana historically imprisons more of its residents per capita than anywhere else in the world. Some 18,000 are released every year, according to the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, and about 43 percent will return to jail within five years for either violating the terms of their release or committing a new crime.

Advocates say those who are able to find consistent work are less likely to re-offend, which means policies that help former prisoners find work protect public safety while potentially saving taxpayer dollars that might otherwise be spent on reincarceration. A 2016 study estimates that excluding people with criminal backgrounds from the workforce subtracts at least $78 billion annually from the nation’s gross domestic product.

Harrell says the state is making progress in this area but there is plenty of work to be done. He calls the package of criminal justice changes approved in 2017 a “watershed moment,” representing a shift of emphasis away from warehousing people and encouraging reentry support.

And while the connection between voting and getting a job might not be obvious, Harrell considers the recent restoration of voting rights for thousands of felons a “huge transformative moment.”

“What we want is for people to integrate, to join the workforce, to pay their taxes, and to be productive members of our community,” he said. “Acknowledging their humanity and restoring their civil rights is a great step toward that end.”

Harrell said legislation approved this year, including renewal of the Clean Slate Task Force, is meant to put the state on a path to expand and simplify opportunities to have crimes expunged from offenders’ records. The current process is expensive and basically requires a lawyer to navigate, Harrell said.

He said next year’s agenda should include legislation to ensure defendants understand when a guilty plea might affect their ability to get housing, student loans, or an occupational license, even if they aren’t sentenced to any prison time.

“All of these consequences that people aren’t aware of should be considered part of the sentence, because it is,” Harrell said.

The Louisiana Workforce Commission provides OSHA 10 workforce training to prisoners at seven state institutions so they’ll have a credential when they leave, the LWC says in an emailed response to questions. The LWC also assigns personnel to five reporting centers within the Department of Corrections, which begins helping prisoners prepare for the transition process about nine months prior to release.

The commission also oversees the state’s Fidelity Bonding program, insuring employers against employee dishonesty, including theft, forgery, larceny or embezzlement. The goal is to encourage hiring of people who are qualified for the job but might be perceived as high risk.

This year, the LWC partnered with the corrections department and local nonprofits on a pilot project for formerly incarcerated men with a moderate-to-high risk of recidivism in East Baton Rouge Parish. Participants in the 60-day program went through life skills, employment training, transitional employment, job coaching and case management.

Asked if there are initiatives being tried in other states that might be worth considering in Louisiana, the LWC noted that states such as Texas, Massachusetts and Missouri are providing transitional housing to ex-offenders while they are receiving employment wrap-around services.

“It’s has always been difficult to get employers to give formerly incarcerated personnel a second chance, but during the pandemic this has proven even more difficult,” the LWC’s statement says. “Given the employment circumstances of COVID-19, employers are now faced with layoffs of current workers and they are still not at a point where they can bring back the initial employees that have been laid off.”

House Bill 77 from this year’s regular session allows probationers and parolees to meet with their probation officers virtually, rather than having to miss work for an in-person visit.

“My probationers would tell me I can’t afford to miss a day of work,” former probation and parole specialist Scott Peyton said. Peyton is Louisiana director for Right on Crime, which says it advocates for policies that help convert former prisoners from “tax burdens to tax payers.” The measure has the added bonus of reducing the risk of spreading infectious diseases such as COVID-19, he notes.

Asked about things other states are doing that Louisiana lawmakers should consider, Peyton brings up occupational licensing. Current rules set by many licensing boards make it difficult, if not impossible, for ex-offenders to qualify. A proposal last year to loosen some of those restrictions was amended with so many exemptions that the author decided not to move forward, Harrell said.

“These boards come forward and say, ‘We agree in principle, but not for us,’” Harrell said.

Peyton likes to emphasize the upsides of hiring formerly incarcerated people, which include federal Work Opportunity Tax Credits. He also says former prisoners, when given a second chance, often are more loyal employees than the average worker.

People on supervised release are tested for drugs and required to work. If they’ve received skills training on the inside, they might even be better prepared than some workers who haven’t been incarcerated.

“It’s almost like a whole separate HR department,” Peyton said.

Bills and resolutions Louisiana lawmakers approved this year meant to help former prisoners reenter the workforce include:

House Bill 77 (regular session): Allows the use of video technology for probationers and parolees as an alternative to taking time off work for an in-person meeting.

Senate Bill 354 (regular session): Requires the Department of Public Safety and Corrections to provide an identification card to each individual upon their release that includes a list of vocational training accomplishments.

House Bill 529 (regular session): Requires probation and parole officials to issue a letter of incarceration upon request that provides an accounting of a person’s time spent in corrections department custody.

House Bill 643 (regular session): Allows reevaluation of supervision requirements for people on parole after they have served five years for non-violent offenses and seven years for violent offenses.

House Resolution 67 (regular session): Recreates the Clean Slate Task Force, which is tasked with recommending ways to help people with criminal histories navigate Louisiana’s expungement process and clear barriers to employment and housing.

House Concurrent Resolution 17 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 11 (special session): Urges state agencies and businesses “to recognize the value that justice-involved persons can bring to the workforce and society and to act with intention to empower, train, and employ such individuals.”