Former inmates, unable to earn living wage, return to crime, according to study
Ex-offenders from Philadelphia have a more difficult time turning their lives around after a stint in prison than do former inmates from other areas, noted a new report on recidivism in Philadelphia.
The reasons are twofold — inmates from Philadelphia have less education than their counterparts, and there is stiffer competition for a shrinking pool of low-skill jobs in Philadelphia.
“In Philadelphia jails, 55 percent of inmates are high school dropouts that do not have a GED or a high school diploma. Compare that to the national inmate population where 40 percent are high school dropouts,” said Joshua Sevin, deputy director of Economy League of Greater Philadelphia. “And, we’re seeing intense competition for a low and seemingly shrinking number of low-skilled jobs.”
Only 4 percent of Philadelphia inmates had a college degree, compared to 22 percent nationally.
Even if they can find a job, ex-offenders with no high school diploma in Philadelphia can only expect to earn about $8,300 annually after their release from jail.
“That’s barely enough to cover fair-market rent for an apartment,” Sevin said. “Clearly it’s very tough going for ex-offenders.”
In general, ex-offenders earn 11 percent less per hour than people with no record, and wage growth is 30 percent less.
The difficulty is compounded by the fact that many ex-offenders face fines, restitution, court costs and fees, and child support payments that in some cases total up to 65 percent of their income. With an annual salary of $8,300, that equates to $5,395, leaving an ex-offender $2,905 a year on which to live.
“There is often a hole of debt and restitution that awaits them when they come out of jail,” Sevin said. “When you talk about incentives for someone to seek and stick with employment, that amount of money going out the door really takes down the incentive.”
That’s bad news not only for those individuals, but also for the city as whole, found the report released Monday by the Economy League, which detailed the economic impact of the city’s recidivism rate.
High recidivism rates cost the city in wage and sales taxes as well as adding to the growing costs of incarceration. The report estimated that if Philadelphia could cut the number of inmates returning to jail by 1,500 it would save $26.3 million a year.
The report recommended that the city align its policy to the realities faced by ex-offenders in five ways: increase spending on education and employment programs for ex-offenders; work more closely with industries likely to hire former inmates; push its $10,000 tax credit for hiring ex-offenders; extend wage garnishment periods for ex-offenders and make sure its programs are working.
“This is a public safety … challenge,” said Mayor Michael Nutter. “It’s not just about giving someone a second chance. I would suggest it’s about life saving.”
There are an estimated 300,000 ex-offenders in Philadelphia.
Each year there are about 40,000 releases from city, state and federal prisons in Philadelphia. Sevin cautioned that figure did not mean 40,000 people were released each year, because prison statistics track releases, not individuals, and some individuals are released and go back to prison and are released again within the same calendar year.
Still, the number of ex-offenders hitting the streets annually was near that figure.
The report noted that 60 percent of them remained unemployed one year after their release and 40 percent would return to jail within three years of their release.
Most of them lack work readiness skills, the social network needed to land a job and face employers reluctant to hire ex-offenders.
“When folks are working they literally just don’t have time and are less motivated to be out here robbing people, stealing and creating all kinds of havoc,” said Nutter.
The city has been grappling with the problem for years.
In April, the city prohibited prospective employees from asking whether job applicants had ever been convicted of a felony until at least the second interview. Hopes were that removing those questions early more ex-offenders will be able to more easily make the transition from prison to life outside.
It has been well documented that the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other industrialized nation on Earth; more than 2.5 million people — and many of those individuals are expected to return to prison after having committed new crimes within a few years after their return to society.
There are a host of issues that contribute to high recidivism; some ex-offenders can’t find gainful employment because of their past, or they’re homeless, or they have problems related to substance abuse. But whatever their main problem is, they need assistance from the government and community in order to reestablish themselves as productive members of society.
Several programs exist whose express mission is helping ex-offenders: R.I.S.E. or Re-Integration Services for Ex-Offenders, is supposed to be at the top of the list. But another program, with a 70 percent success rate was forced to suspend services on June 15 because of state and city budget cuts. For more than three years, Philly ReNew, a program offered by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, helped at least 400 men, all of whom were fathers, obtain employment, GEDs and change their lives for the better.
Without the $600,000 state grant, Philly ReNew will be gone. With an average recidivism rate of 55 percent in Pennsylvania, and about the same rate in Philadelphia, losing successful re-entry programs puts public safety at risk, said Pam Superville, program manager, Entry Services.
“Re-entry programs have been proven to decrease recidivism,” Superville said. “As of June 30 we won’t be able to adequately serve these men with the concentrated assistance they need. If an ex-offender finds a job but has no home, what’s he going to do? We know that cuts to these programs will eventually lead to more individuals going back to prison. We were getting applicants from the state and federal facilities who heard about what we were doing and wanted to participate. Now we have to turn them away? We have to say we can’t take them, and some of them will feel hopeless. As we speak, we’re reaching out to the private sector and different state legislators — but so far we haven’t gotten a positive response.”
Philly ReNew began operations in 2008 and took in 150 men a year, ex-offenders from not only city detention facilities but also state and federal inmates who were being released. People who were non-violent offenders, violent offenders, both men and women and, sex offenders were assisted in putting their lives back together.
Cameron Holmes, who served 22 ½ years in prison for burglary and robbery is a life skills educator and job coach for the program. He also expressed his concern for the clients and public safety.
“When I’m talking with them, they know they’re with someone who knows what they’re going through. It’s not just about finding jobs, but about teaching them to be men — to be politically active and active in their communities. They have to learn how to be fathers,” he said. “After June 30, if clients come in and need help, we’ll still help them as much as we can, but it won’t be able to be on the same level. Do we really want to take this away from them?”
Noel Ramos, one of the clients of Philly ReNew said he saw a flyer for the program on the bulletin board of the halfway house he was in. He said he expected the usual, but he was wrong.
“It was a totally different environment. I wanted to get out of my criminal lifestyle, I wanted to change my life and Cameron inspired me to do that,” Ramos said. “I learned it’s not just about having a job but about educating yourself, to constantly improve yourself. I learned it’s more than just about me. I know a lot of people, and they look at me now and see the changes. I’m trustworthy now. I know federal inmates who were going to be sent to this program because of its success. I’m really concerned about what’s going to happen to them.”
Isean McNeal came to Philadelphia to participate in the program 15 weeks ago. He said he was given a list of different programs and chose Philly ReNew. He said he wasn’t expecting the reception he received.
“It was a family atmosphere, they welcomed me with open arms, and that’s not what I was expecting,” McNeal said. “I was really looking to change my life and honestly, my expectations weren’t that high — but when I saw the welcoming I got and the doors that opened for me, I knew I could get past my old ways. We’re like a family here; I know I can call on these people for help. Mr. Holmes taught me so much about being a man. I mean, I thought I knew — but I really had no idea at all. When we heard the announcement that the program wasn’t going to continue, we were hurt. Some of the people here were on the verge of tears. I’ve been involved in other programs — this was one of the most effective ones. Nothing else was like this one. They went above and beyond to help us. I’m an advocate for this program, and the community needs it.”