New legislation could make finding work easier for released convicts

Sunday, March 16, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Inmates might have an easier time finding work after completing their sentences with a new bill proposed by Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City.

House Bill 1402 would require the Department of Corrections to offer inmates certification for the skills they performed while working in prison.

Employment is key in lessening the recidivism rate, department Director George A. Lombardi wrote in the agency's 2012 report.

Missouri's recidivism rate has been declining since 2006, according to a 2012 report from the Missouri Reentry Process, a program started in 2002 by the National Institute of Corrections to improve the transition from prison to the community. In 2006, 40.5 percent of first-time releases and 45.3 percent of all released inmates committed a crime after re-entry. By 2010, the rates dropped to 34.7 percent and 41 percent.

Currently, convicts are given a simple certificate of the jobs and number of hours they performed, but they lack official certification that would make it easier to find work, Ellington said.

Inmates would continue to receive worker certificates for jobs that are not certifiable.

The Special Standing Committee on Corrections hosted a public hearing on the bill March 5. Nancy Porter of The Sentencing Project, a prison reform group based in Washington, D.C., was the only person to testify.

Porter said that recidivism is based on numerous things, including lack of employment, family support and even shelter but that certification would help people find a job.

The program is "new territory," she said. Ohio, New York and North Carolina have instituted similar policies in the past few years.

One thing holding convicts back, Porter said, was the job application itself. Applications often ask for prior felony convictions, and because many businesses don't take chances on hiring offenders, work certification would encourage them to apply by reducing that stigma.

"(The) hope is to change the culture around people with prior convictions as they seek employment going forward," she said.

Seventy-two percent of offenders who have never held a full-time job return to prison within two years, compared to 27 percent of those who have held full-time work, according to the Missouri Reentry Process. 

Ellington's bill would also enroll Missouri in the Federal Bonding Program, a type of insurance offered through the U.S. Department of Labor "as an employer job-hire incentive that guarantee(s) the job honesty of at-risk job seekers." The insurance is offered to employers for free.

In addition to House Bill 1402, Ellington filed several other corrections reform bills:

Finally, Ellington also proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow convicted felons to vote.

So far, however, only the job certification bill has made it to the committee.

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