To combat a workforce shortage that continues to plague Connecticut, a leading child advocacy group is recommending that the state turn to people leaving incarceration to help fill the void.
Connecticut Voices for Children, a statewide research and advocacy organization, made the recommendation, among others, in a report released Tuesday, titled “Rethinking Reentry Wage and Policy Barriers Will Benefit Connecticut’s Communities and Economy.”
As the report outlines, Connecticut holds a steady unemployment rate hovering around 4%, a labor force participation rate of nearly 65% and “not enough workers to meet all the needs of employers.” While formerly incarcerated people may possess the skills that employers desire, the opportunities often have, in part, nonviable job requirements and inadequate wages.
And while the Department of Correction offers programs aimed at helping people reintegrate into their communities — financial literacy and entrepreneurial training, for example — the programs are understaffed, and people still report significant struggles with finding employment, housing and health care. Those primarily affected include men, people of color and parents supporting children, in addition to people without collegiate experience and those with minimal employment history, according to the report.
“These consequences can have a large economic impact not just for reentering individuals; by making it harder for reentering individuals to meet their basic needs, collateral consequences have a detrimental impact on society as a whole,” the report says. Restricting a person’s access to employment contributes to “higher unemployment rates and/or lower labor force participation rates, fewer taxpayers, and a less active economy,” it says. The report also describes work as an “effective lever” to reduce recidivism, which years of research supports.
Utilizing data from the first quarter of 2022, the researchers found that just over one tenth of entry-level occupations that did not require a bachelor’s degree paid a high enough entry-level wage to support an adult with one or two children. They found that as occupational entry-level pay increased, policy barriers and educational requirements also increased. And they discovered that there were fewer annual openings among jobs with a higher entry-level pay.
Detailed in the report as an “unexpected trend,” researchers also found that a driver’s license was necessary to qualify for 7% of the jobs in their database and likely needed for an additional 5% of jobs. The license requirement can pose a barrier to formerly incarcerated people, several of whom told legislators earlier this year that they were leaving prison without identification cards. Some of their situations reflected an apparent violation of state law.
The report offers several policy recommendations, including offering career planning and preparation to people behind bars before their release, creating more transportation options to assist with employment opportunities, increasing the minimum wage and the wages of people who are incarcerated and expanding funding for the state’s reentry centers.
Reentry centers help people find work and community services as they leave incarceration. At least two centers — one in Bridgeport, the other in Hartford — told researchers they would likely have to shut down in 2024 unless the state provides them additional funding. They are currently being funded by American Rescue Plan Act dollars, which are considered temporary.
“We’re really hoping that putting into light what people’s actual needs are and how challenging the reentry process is and how many costs people have when they reenter can really create a conversation about sustainable wages being a public safety issue as well,” said Lauren Ruth, a research and policy fellow with Connecticut Voices for Children and the report’s author.
Neither the House or Senate chair of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee or the DOC immediately responded to requests for comment.
Reentry services for formerly incarcerated people have been a topic of legislative discussion for much of the year. In January, the state announced that it would close Willard Correctional Institution in Enfield, marking the third facility in the last two years to cease operations. Advocates then held a press conference in Hartford’s Legislative Office Building, speaking out about their desire for the state to allocate funds saved from the closures — roughly $26.5 million annually — to people reintegrating into their communities.
Prior to the close of the legislative session in June, officials passed House Bill 6875, a measure that aims to fix loopholes in a 2017 law requiring the Department of Correction and the Department of Motor Vehicles to provide state ID cards or driver’s licenses to people being released from prison. The law mandates that, with available funds, the two departments ensure that a person receives an ID card by the time of their release unless the person notifies them in writing that they don’t wish to obtain one, or if they’re ineligible.
The new report asks policymakers to build on the law mandating identification cards in the DOC by ensuring that “driver’s licenses are the primary form of identification provided to people when they exit a facility.”
It also encourages legislators “to create a revenue intercept to fund a reinvestment account outside of the General Fund that will divert at least $26.5 million each year toward substance abuse interventions, job training, crime prevention, child and youth services and activities, neighborhood development, and reentry supports.” Meanwhile, other places in Connecticut have ramped up reentry efforts without the state’s financial support.
In March, New Haven announced an initiative to support 20 people by providing them $500 per month under a yearlong pilot program designed for those readjusting to life after being incarcerated. The $120,000 initiative is backed by 4-CT, a nonprofit that partners with community-based organizations across the state to provide direct cash assistance to people in need.
“I think philanthropy can be really helpful for pushing forward, taking some risks and trying out pilots,” Ruth said. “But even a few philanthropies coming together would be hard pressed to support every person reentering in the state.”