Newswise — Job prospects are bleak for anyone with a criminal record in California, and the current economic downturn makes it even tougher. Nearly eight million residents have criminal records, and the numbers are growing.

The need to find gainful employment for this disadvantaged group is urgent: the state could release up to 40-thousand prisoners over the next two years, by court order. If trends are any indication, 60% to 80% of them will be unemployed one year after release. But a new report from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law recommends ways the state can reverse that trend.

The law school’s Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice today released Reaching a Higher Ground: Increasing Employment Opportunities for People with Prior Convictions. The report is a compilation of the best ideas from police officers, unions, government officials, employers, academics, and more.

“Increasing employment opportunities for people with criminal records isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” said center Executive Director Andrea Russi. “Communities are stronger when their residents have jobs; recidivism rates drop and costs decrease across the board for police, courts, and prisons.”

In the past three decades, California’s prison population has shot up more than 580 percent to about 168-thousand prisoners. Sixty-six percent of its parolees return to prison within three years of release—more than twenty percent higher than the national average. But better job opportunities could reverse that downward spiral.

John Shegerian, CEO of Fresno-based Electronic Recyclers and a report advisor, said the design of any jobs or training initiative needs to involve employers. “At the end of the day, the employer makes the decision to hire. A training program has to teach skills that are essential to the daily operation of a participating company—be it in construction, trucking, or manufacturing.”

Report author and program director of the law school’s Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, Sarah Lawrence, said employees who’ve served time in prison must be job-ready. “People with prior convictions need to learn the soft skills such as arriving on time everyday, having good communication skills, and accepting responsibility,” she said.

Reaching a Higher Ground includes core recommendations that fall into three categories: skill development, job creation, and background checks.

Skill development

Most prisoners are less educated than the general public and have fewer marketable skills. Adult basic education, secondary education, and vocational training programs have proven effective if well-designed and led by properly trained staff, according to the report. Recommendations include:

• Remove barriers to educational and training programs in prisons and jails to allow more individuals to participate. Only 16% of prisoners are accepted into these programs; 23,000 are on a waiting list.

• Include both classroom learning and actual work experience to help prisoners transition from cell blocks to communities. • Monitor and track the performance of state-funded education and training programs.

Job creation

Effective networking can often uncover new jobs in growing industries. Recommendations include:

• Ensure that educational programs and vocational training reflect local needs and growth industries.

• Engage private employers as strategic partners in shaping training programs on an ongoing basis.

• Support local job creation strategies that leverage government-funded employment programs.

Background checks

The background check industry is growing rapidly, by about 25% to 35% a year, but without effective oversight or regulations. As a result, more employers are checking applicant backgrounds; more private, non-law enforcement firms have access to criminal records; and there are concerns about the accuracy of information. Recommendations include:

• Strengthen and enforce laws that regulate the hiring of people with prior convictions and encourage employers to adopt fair employment practices.

• Enforce legal standards that regulate background screening and prosecute employers and private firms that violate these laws.

California’s prison budget was nearly ten billion dollars last fiscal year, and the average annual cost to house a prisoner was about 49-thousand dollars. “Increasing job opportunities for people with criminal records would help shrink the state budget by reducing the high cost of recidivism, and increase public safety,” said Andrea Russi.

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