Collaboration, preventative measures imperative to help break the cycle of injustice

Coauthored by Donald R. Cravins, Jr., Senior Vice President for Policy and Executive Director of the National Urban League Washington Bureau

Approximately 60 percent of the 2.3 million incarcerated Americans are Hispanic and African-American. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that two-thirds of prisoners will be arrested again for a new crime within three years of their release from prison. When the formerly incarcerated do not have the skills, training or support needed to fully reintegrate into the workforce as productive members of society, this cycle continues.

At a recent conversation hosted by the National Urban League and Bank of America, we discussed some of the challenges confronting these individuals as well as the need to focus on preventative measures that help keep young people on track and out of prison. We believe that economic mobility, particularly for young people of color who have been impacted by disproportionate unemployment and incarceration rates, is a defining social justice issue of our time - that impacts each community's ability to thrive.

It's clear that there is no single solution to this growing crisis. Collaboration between government, nonprofits and the private sector is an essential ingredient to move the dial on reentry into the workforce as well as ensuring that young people in our country see themselves on a trajectory for success.

Some observations on how to advance this work:

  • Build a pipeline of success for young people. According to MENTOR: The National Partnership, there are nearly 16 million at risk youth in this country without access to a mentor. Each of us has skills and perspectives that are immensely valuable to a young person as they navigate school and how to prepare for their future. Keeping them on track through support such as mentoring is essential. In addition to the soft skills imparted, our young people can benefit from a broader understanding of professions - and begin to see themselves as part of the workforce. Connecting them to jobs and opportunities to learn better money habits will put them on a path to success.
  • Provide alternative pathways for those who have fallen off track. For young adults who have dropped out of school and found themselves on the margins, we can do better. By connecting them to programs that build skills and offer employment opportunities such as Year Up's model of apprenticeships combined with education credentials, we can help them move along the economic continuum toward long-term stability.
  • Offer those who deserve a second chance an opportunity to rebuild their lives. Social enterprises across the country, such as DC Central Kitchen in Washington, DC, are doing tremendous work to help the formerly incarcerated as well as others with barriers to employment obtain job training and placement. Job training is key, but to see measurable results we need holistic services that offer men and women support on challenges ranging from lack of transportation, unstable housing, and child support. Individuals who participated in the National Urban League's Adult Re-entry Program received this kind of comprehensive support, and 96% of participants did not return to prison. The National Urban League's Urban Youth Empowerment Program uses a holistic approach to prepare Opportunity Youth, ages 14-24, for pathways to economic stability through a comprehensive set of services.

These types of programs improve the lives of the formerly incarcerated and their families and benefit entire communities. They build a thriving workforce, which is good for businesses everywhere.

We believe there is hope and a way forward as we collectively grapple with this tough issue. Dialogue between those in the private sector and those working on social programs in our communities can help advance innovative solutions, and we look forward to doing even more to amplify programs like these that contribute to shared success, and our country's economic growth and stability.