Fix the criminal justice system to open up our economy
Former offenders deserve more than we're giving them
Manufacturing, construction, and trucking: each of these sectors, which require long hours or backbreaking work, are having a lot of trouble finding workers in a full-employment economy. Month after month, including in the latest report, the U.S. Labor Department's job openings survey shows record or near record numbers of jobs available.
These jobs might be unglamorous, but there are plenty of Americans who'd love the shot at having one of these jobs-if policymakers would just look in the right places: our prison system. Increasing support for and access to prisoner job training programs and reforming our criminal justice system will help employers across sectors fill the jobs gap.
Employers are ready to hire formerly incarcerated individuals if they're qualified. A Society for Human Resource Management and the Charles Koch Institute found 82 percent of managers and 67 percent of HR professionals feel the "quality of hire" for workers with criminal records is as high or higher than for workers without records. Respondents said their reasons for hiring workers with criminal records were a desire to hire the best candidate for the job regardless of criminal history, making the community a better place, and giving individuals a second chance.
Over the last two generations, hundreds of thousands of young people have gotten lost in our criminal justice system. According to a new book by Anthony B. Bradley from King's College, harsher U.S. criminal laws in the 1970s have led to a 400 percent increase in the prison population since 1980. Today, the United States now accounts for nearly one-quarter of the world's jailed population. The U.S. Department of Justice now spends 25 percent of its budget taking care of federal prisoners.
Instead of warehousing America's young people - who could provide the labor construction, manufacturing, and trucking firms need - policymakers should try to reduce prison populations. They should create programs that keep offenders from landing back in prison and they should keep more nonviolent offenders from ever ending up behind bars in the first place.
Both options work.
Prison-based workforce training programs transformed my life. While serving a 10-year sentence for a drug offense, I studied automotive repair technology through Walla Walla Community College. I earned the chance to participate in this program - there were only 14 spots available - through demonstrated good behavior and by submitting a resume and going through an interview process.
I also was chosen because I was classified by the Department of Corrections as high risk, which means I have a high chance of recidivism. I'd been involved with drugs and gangs since I was young. People like me usually end up back in jail. But instead of returning to my previous life, I'm now at Walla Walla Community College (WWCC).
I also participate in Juntos, an outreach program for at risk youth that helps students stay away from drugs and gangs, and serve as Associated Student Body President at WWCC. I recently won an opportunity to participate in the 2018 National Leadership and Skills Conference (NLSC) in Louisville, Ky. and traveled there in June on a scholarship provided by the Charles Koch Foundation and the mikeroweWORKS Foundation. (I qualified for the competition in 2017 as well, but couldn't attend because I was on a mission trip.)
There are a lot of guys like me. But even with skills, barriers exist. I have many friends who've left prison and can't find employment. I'm trying to do my part by studying entrepreneurship, so I eventually can open my own shop and create jobs for individuals trying to reenter society.
But I can't do it alone. Policymakers need to stop this cycle of hopelessness from ever starting by sending fewer nonviolent offenders to prison in the first place.
Anthony Bradley's book also explains, on any given night, about 81,000 U.S. youth are housed in juvenile facilities and another 10,000 are in adult jails and prisons. In 2008, two million youth under the age of eighteen were arrested, 95 percent of whom had not been accused of violent crimes. Rehab programs, community service, and fines all would be better options for these kids - alternatives that would keep them out of prison, and in the workforce.
Rick Aguilar is a former gang member who served 10 years in prison for a non-violent drug offense. He is now a recipient of the SkillsUSA Travel Scholarship supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, Koch Industries, and the mikeroweWORKS Foundation.