Thursday, February 07, 2008

Transportation, Employment and Re-Entry

I'm back home from a symposium in San Antonio with lots of thoughts running through my head (even more than usual) about jail overcrowding problems and solutions that will likely play out on the blog in the coming days and weeks.

First off, thanks to Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson for inviting me and many kudos everyone involved in putting on such a useful colloquium - it was really an impressive, educational event, and a lot topics and solutions were discussed that rarely receive such particular attention. (If you attended, say hello in the comments and let me know what was the most interesting thing you learned there.)

While I'll have more to say about the event in the morning, I wanted to record some thoughts that particularly struck me on the subject of transportation. Nobody at the event had a good solution, but folks from several different counties identified the same problem.

On the panel about "re-entry" and in response to a question I asked as a followup, there arose an interesting discussion of how transportation was a particular barrier to re-entry for people leaving prison. Transportation for those just out of prison may be a bigger barrier to re-entry, even, than getting a job in the first place, one panelist said. The re-entry coordinator for Tarrant County said that because it's more difficult for people with criminal records to find a good job, their entry-level positions often turn out to be on the night shift after the buses stopped running. I'd never thought of that, but I'll bet it's disproportionately true among offenders at the macro-level.

Tyler District Judge Cynthia Kent mentioned that their incarceration alternative program helped people with suspended drivers licenses get refurbished bicycles to get to and from work. I thought that was a neat idea, but what's possible in Tyler wouldn't always work in a bigger city. You can't ride a bike on Interstate 35 or MoPac.

Bexar Commissioner Tommy Adkisson suggested a deal could be struck with the local transit agency to get free bus fare; Bexar County negotiated such a deal for its own employees to reduce car trips downtown, he said. But again, that doesn't help when the buses stop running.

One thought that occurred to me on the drive home: In Austin, our transit service CapMetro already has special vehicles that can be called to the home of the disabled for pre-arranged personal service, so it's possible some system could be established to do the same thing for people on probation or parole who had jobs that ran past the bus schedules - certainly it's something worth thinking about. (It might be expensive but it's still cheaper than jailing them because they lose their job and sell drugs to buy groceries.)

Darla Gay of the Travis County District Atttorney's office said that the Austin Re-Entry Roundtable had considered (but not implemented) an idea to ask churches, many of which already have active prison ministries, to use church buses to help give rides to offenders. That's a creative idea for a public-private partnership, but it'd sure be tough to coordinate, particularly if it only used volunteer drivers. This seems like a government function that might benefit from private partnerships, but should not be relegated to them.

There was another interesting moment (to me, anyway) when discussing employment of ex-offenders; Gay asked the audience how many of them made hiring decisions in their organization, and quite a few raised their hands. Then she asked them how many of them ever hired formerly incarcerated people at their agencies, and nearly every hand went down. The implication, clearly, was that if government wants people leaving prison to get jobs and become productive citizens, perhaps it needs to put its money where its mouth is and hire more ex-offenders for government jobs.

Gay added that although "violent" offenders are the ones people are most loathe to hire, from a public safety perspective they're the ones who, once they're out of prison, it's perhaps most important to ensure they can get a job and support themselves. That's a damn good point.

Gay advocated the idea of "banning the box," or removing the checkbox from employment applications (on a voluntary basis, not by statute) that ask whether the applicant has previously been incarcerated. The chair of UTSA's Criminal Justice Department piped in to add that Florida had passed a law (this is his say so - I want to look into it further but know nothing about it), that disallowed employers asking about past incarceration, but mandated disclosure by the employee on the 31st day of employment. The idea is to have the employer take into account the employees skills, qualifications and job performance BEFORE taking into account the criminal record. That's not quite banning the box, just delaying it, but I'll be interested to learn more how it works and what have been the results.

More soon, but I really enjoyed the event and meeting lots of new people. Thanks to everybody who made the trip a pleasure.

15 comments:

JSN said...

We have a bike library that is very popular. The police recover a lot of bikes and they hold them for awhile (in case someone claims them). The bike library rebuilds the bikes (the city provides storage space in an old bus depot and work shop in a store front) and lends them on a first-come-first-served basis with a $10 deposit. If the bike is not returned they keep the $10.

We have lots of volunteers and bike borrowers and the city is happy because the bikes are better than cars from their point of view. The police are happy because they don't have to store and dispose of the bikes.

It could be that a bike library could work for parolees and probationers who are prohibited from driving.

Anonymous said...

The point made about transportation is very true...When I got out of TDCJ, it wasn't until I got a pickup truck that I was able to get a job. Using the buses to get around Houston is doable, but it definitely limits where a person can work and what hours he can work. It's also true that I had to turn down a couple of jobs because even though they were close to a bus line, the hours were late-night, after the bus service had ended.

Anonymous said...

this post is to funny.

Anonymous said...

It is refreshing to know topics related to successful re-entry are being discussed.

I hope the politicians are listening. I also hope the politicians aren't afraid of being considered soft on crime for listening!

Writeonbro said...

There has to be something done about the ridiculous sentencing policies in this state.
When you lock up a person for five or more years and put them out on the street with the same skills they went into prison with, stealing, selling drugs. What job will they qualify for when they get out.

Job training and education requirements should be part of every sentence. The Justice Department statistics show these programs reduce recidivism.

Maybe judges and prosecutors are more worried about having a job than having a better community.

Anonymous said...

We all know that Texas is the lock'em up state. But it's true that these people need a chance to improve their lives. Some will, some won't but we can't cast them all aside. The Florida law about requiring a person to reveal their incarceration on the 31st day of employment is an excellent idea, but perhaps thought should be given to extending it to 60 days or more. Sort of a probation period which gives employers more time to detemine the work ethics of a new employee. 31 days is a little short. I had an employee that started the job and had 3 deaths in the family in one month and because of this it would have been to determine in 31 ones whether or not they would be a keeper.

JT Barrie said...

I find it interesting that criminal records are such a big problem in Florida that there are provisions for them on job applications that aren't used as a form of elimination for the many applicants for the few minimum wage style jobs. It also indicates an emergent labor shortage - that will only get worse when we "crack down" on illegal immigrants.

Anonymous said...

The legal system is a cash cow in Texas. That said I don't think the people in charge will do anything to hurt the cash flow. It is good to see there are a few people in Texas who see a problem with the criminal justice system in Texas. As things are now you have to do what is needed to survive.

mcmc said...

Great presentation, Grits. You were the only speaker in your group who stayed on topic and as a daily reader of your blog, it was good to put a face to the name. Overall, the symposium was very interesting and provided some useful contacts and information. I was concerned that there were no local (Travis County) reps from pretrial services there...they play a big part in local jail overcrowding and need to face that fact and play ball with the rest of us. I hope this becomes an annual event, as well. Was it just me or could anyone else have done without the political grandstanding at the end?

Anonymous said...

WOW!! Grits - excellent article. That is my base and most passionate concern - someone goes to prison, gets no new skills/education, but is expected to pay an abundance of fines. However, no transportation or job is provided, or new skill. And as you also noted, it is difficult to find a job when they have a criminal background, regardless of whether or not it is violent.

STANDING OVATION GRITS! BRAVO!!

It is so nice and refreshing to see that those in higher positions of authority are actually coming to this realization! Now if something realistic and intelligent can actually be done about it....

Anonymous said...

To jsn - about the bikes - the base problem is obviously transportation. How are they supposed to get to the location to get the bike in the first place? And then get home after dropping off the bike? and as grits pointed out...most jobs are after hours, so what kind of hours is this bike thing? I am seriously doubting it is open at night...

jsn said...

Anon 9:59

They can keep the bike as long as they want. If they don't return it by the due date they own it at a cost of $10. Many people don't return the bike and the deposit money is used to buy parts. The last I heard they had about a $8,000 surplus. It is all volunteer labor the bikes are free and the city charges them $1 a year for rent.

Anonymous said...

mcmc -- if it takes listening to a little political grandstanding to get the issue out in the open and finally being talked about --- let them grandstand to their hearts content

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I must admit, mcmc, I bailed before the session with all the politicians. The missus has been down with the flu and needed me back home.

JSN, sounds like in practice there's not much difference between what you're talking about and just giving out refurbished bikes for free or cheap, like Judge Kent is doing in Tyler. Great idea!

BTW, I forgot to mention that, to shut up probationers who complained that riding a bike around town was too difficult, Judge Kent said took to riding a bike herself to the courthouse every day (I don't remember how far, but quite a distance) so she could legitimately tell them, "If I can do it at my age and station, you sure can." I admire that a lot: It's putting your money (and even your behind) where your mouth is in a way I don't see from a lot of jurists.

I still think it's one thing to require bike riding in Tyler, which I know from personal experience is accessible everywhere pretty easily by bike, but quite another to require it in Houston or the Metroplex, where it's really not a viable option in many cases.

JSN said...

Grits;
There is a slight difference. Instead of abandoning the bike they bring it back to the bike library.