Looking back on national reentry week

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By Bishara Addison.  Bishara is the Senior Manager of Policy and Strategic Initiatives at Towards Employment.

One of my favorite blogs to read are the ones written by Mansfield Frazier, who writes for Cool Cleveland. In April,  he shared an article about a training that we both went to from the Racial Equity Institute (REI). This group trained leaders in the community on the impact race has on America and why it’s so critical to address. The trainers framed the conversation around what they called the “Groundwater Approach to Addressing Racial Inequities.” This frame took shape as the trainers described a situation where an individual sees dead fish in a lake. Instead of wondering what was wrong with the dead fish, that person should ask “what’s in the water that is causing so many fish to be sick in the first place?” This training led me to wonder how advocates like myself work to address the challenges that face individuals with criminal backgrounds. Why do we try and “fix” the person when we should be working to fix the systems that contributed to individuals having criminal backgrounds in the first place? And why is it that we often think of black people when we think of reentry although African Americans make up less than half of the current prison population?

As advocates, we often look at policies at the local, state, and federal level to remove the legal and legislative barriers and support those with criminal backgrounds and/or returning from prison. The REI training, however, made me think that we often address these policies from a color blind perspective instead of tackling the reality that our system incarcerates people of color at significantly higher rates than whites. And there are good reasons for that. Despite the tremendous work of civil rights activists in the 1940s and on, additional policies, like the War on Drugs, disproportionately impacted people of color and, arguably, were designed to target African Americans in the inner-city.

As we think back to last month’s celebration of National Reentry Week and recognizing the work of so many who work in the field and those that have overcome their backgrounds, we should also remember how we got here.  And in doing so, recognize our approaches to supporting those reentering and the policies we fight to change, cannot not be color blind.  There is undeniable evidence that race must be addressed to reduce the number of those who enter our justice systems and ensuring that when released, they don’t return.

To know how to resolve these pressing issues, we must first know how we got here. In the book“The New Jim Crow,”author Michelle Alexander points out the dramatic increase in incarceration rates in the United States, from the 1970s on, where there was a more than 600 percent increase in incarceration from the mid-1960s until the year 2000. The increase, driven primarily by the War on Drugs, has targeted primarily nonviolent drug offenders in largely minority inner-city neighborhoods, resulting in an expensive system that is has not traditionally been focused on successful reentry. The scars from the “tough on crime” policies developed during consecutive Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton Administrations still impact us today,but take on different forms when it comes to hiring.

In 2003, Devah Pager (researcher at Northwestern University) published the “Mark of a Criminal Record.”What’s interesting about this paper was not just the depth of research on the impact of a criminal record on employment, but also, how race exacerbates this barrier. This paper explains the results of a study that looked at how employers treated job applicants in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. Applications were divided into four groups (white applicants with a record, white applicants without a record, black applicants with a record and black applicants without a record). Aside for the race and criminal background, the study used very similar resumes and sent them to the same employers. The study found that whites that have no prior conviction were called back the most and that blacks with a record were called back the least. What was interesting about this study was that it also found that only 14% of the black applicants that did not have a prior conviction were called back compared to 17% of the white applicants with a criminal record although both groups had similar resumes.

Studies like these and trainings like the ones provided by REI show us that when addressing barriers to employment, we cannot ignore race. Organizations like Towards Employment do a great job to help individuals with all backgrounds find employment (475 placements last year,  300 of these were individuals with criminal backgrounds). Imagine how many more Towards Employment could place if race were not a barrier.