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A path to work for ex-offenders

Baltimore has some problems, but it also harbors proven solutions. Crime and poverty penetrate all levels of the city, yet there is a remedy right under our noses. America Works, a private for-profit company with funding by the Abell Foundation, has pioneered a successful strategy for getting ex-offenders jobs and reducing recidivism. The results are worth considering as the city looks for a way to combat its most intractable troubles. During the almost 20 years we have operated in Baltimore, we have placed more than 4,000 ex-offenders into jobs. Nearly three-quarters of our participants have felony convictions with the average of two felonies per person.

That employment has resulted in a recidivism rate of 3.3 percent in a year compared to a state wide whopping rate of 40.5 percent. This is supported by a recent study by the Manhattan Institute that found work had a huge effect upon recidivism of non-violent offenders. What is going on here? Take the case of Baltimore resident Wesley McCutchen.

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Mr. McCutchen served more than 25-years in prison for three felony convictions. Upon his release he anticipated roadblocks when it came time to reintegrate back into his hometown. During many months, he landed multiple job interviews, but background checks prevented him from making it to the next round and securing employment. Until one day when his background actually proved to be helpful and an employer gave him a chance.

Mr. McCutchen had many skills that he acquired while serving time, which were pitched to potential employers by the America Works team as he was interviewing for jobs. He learned to be disciplined and motivated, and most importantly, he was ready to re-start his life.

Shortly after, he was hired as an overnight stocker at a major retailer in 2014, and within a year he received a raise and promotion. Mr. McCutchen's success along with those of the thousands placed should put to rest the notion businesses will not hire offenders. But how does this work and can it be replicated and go to scale?

First, work, the sooner the better. The reason welfare rolls rose before the reforms of 1996 was that welfare recipients, like ex-offenders now, were assumed unable to work. There were all kinds of barriers assumed by advocates that would get in the way of getting a job. Lack of training or education, drugs, day care, housing, transportation and so many other obstacles were proposed to be fixed first before work was an option. What happened? No one went to work, and millions remained dependent on government support. When reform efforts proposed work first, supports after, the national rolls fell by over 60 percent, a stupendous social policy achievement.

We must assume, as some prisoner to work programs have, that the people can work and that whatever supports are necessary can be retrofitted into the work environment. This will produce a working population who will be significantly less likely to commit further crimes.

The second critical ingredient is pay for performance for those agencies responsible for placing and maintaining individuals in jobs. This means, first, that the government should decide what it is worth to get an ex-offender working. It should then pay only for someone placed and retained in a job for a specified time period. Payment for production, not process. That's what we do for most government procurement. It works exceptionally well with employment programs, spurring successes and weeding out ineffectual providers of these services.

Maryland spends roughly $38,000 per year to keep each prisoner locked up. To place an ex-offender into a job and keep them there ranges from $5,000-$7,500. Just on the cost savings alone, hard-strapped government should be hard pressed to adopt this strategy. But further, the reduction in crime and its ravaging of our communities suggests it is a policy worth spearheading.

Baltimore needs a winning solution to the ravages of crime. Here is a place to start.

Peter Cove is founder of America Works, a national private workforce development firm, which operates America Works of Maryland, Inc. His email is awcove@gmail.com.

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