By Zach Linsey and Daniel Balke
Archaic criminal laws, unjust sentencing guidelines, and systematic prejudices nationwide and in the District have hollowed out inner cities across America. The statistics, often cited, but never overstated, are staggering: At 2.3 million incarcerated, the United States accounts for nearly 25% of the world’s prison population, despite accounting for only 5% of the world’s total population.
The District doesn’t fair much better. In 2015, more than 2,600 people were confined to a detention center on any given day. While there has been a significant decline from 2011, when the average daily population in D.C. detention centers was over 5,100, it still means that thousands of people are locked up and stripped from the communities and families who need them most.
The characteristics of those doing time make clear why their absence is so costly. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, in 2014, the D.C. African American population accounted for 49% of the District’s total population; yet, 90% of the District’s incarcerated population was black. Further, a disproportionately high share of incarcerated residents – 70% – are under the age of 40, and fully 81% report having a level of education no greater than a GED.
Putting these statistics together paints a powerful picture of the citizens we put away: The vast majority of D.C. inmates are young black men, with no college education, and in the prime of their economically productive lives. As stunning as these figures are, perhaps more concerning, in terms of the social and economic costs incarceration poses to our city, is what happens to ex-offenders when they return from detention.
Simply put, recidivism rates are too high. With an estimated 8,000 residents returning to the District from some form of incarceration each year, 19% are re-incarcerated within one year of their release.
The elevated rates of incarceration and re-incarceration among black men in D.C. isn’t a case of bad folks doing bad things. It’s a failure of public policy.
The profile of returning citizens means they are effectively set up to fail once they leave incarceration. How can you find a job with little experience, little education, and little more to take to potential employers than a criminal record – something stamped on the resume of 60,000 District residents. It’s little surprise ex-offenders often return to criminal activity: Legally or illegally, somehow, you’ve got to provide for yourself and your family.
That said, the recipe to prevent returning citizens, and related family members, from being locked up is clear: jobs that pay livable wages, skills training, mentorships, and psychological support.
Encouragingly, today, the D.C. City Council will consider legislation that does exactly that.
If passed, the bill would establish a business development program to educate, train, and assist returning citizens in fields including finance, administration, business planning, budgeting, and marketing. It would also establish a $10 million fund to provide for the operational costs of the program, and to invest in non- and for-profit businesses owned, managed, or operated by returning citizens.
This would mark a tremendous step in the right direction. But it’s only a start.
To truly break the structural factors that perpetuate Washington’s prison epidemic, city businesses need to step up and do their part.
Luckily, D.C.’s entrepreneurial and startup culture is thriving; and with this comes new opportunities. What if every new business that opened in neighborhoods like Brookland, Shaw, H St., and Anacostia committed full-time employment positions and/or on-the-job, paid apprenticeships to the ranks of D.C.’s returning citizens? By providing access to culinary certifications, or training in accounting, marketing, and website management, we’d be setting up our valued community members for well-paying, long-term employment positions.
Of course, this proposal requires a new vision of capitalism. One that fits within the millenial mindset of multiple bottom lines. Instead of squeezing margins and focusing exclusively on profits, D.C. could lead the nation in a new form business: driving profits by aggressively impacting marginalized communities.
Some would call this bad business. We’d call it the price of admission. Together, we can help ensure returning citizens have the tools they need to thrive, giving everyone, regardless of background, the opportunity to succeed.
Zach Linsey is Founder & CEO of Building With Beans, a D.C.-based non-profit that sells coffee to provide workforce training and development to D.C.’s marginalized communities. Daniel Balke is a Director at Laurel Strategies, a global business advisory and strategic communications firm.