The D.C. Council approved the city’s budget earlier this year. While many people were unhappy with the budget, one clear loser was the returning citizens community.
Last year, the council unanimously passed the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program (IIEP) but failed to appropriate funding for the legislation. The council followed the Mayor’s lead this year in refusing to fund the IIEP. The IIEP provides education, entrepreneurial training, apprenticeship, business mentorship and access to start-up capital for the District’s returning citizens.
As background, fifty percent of the District’s returning citizens – people coming home from prison – are unemployed. Fifty percent are back in prison within three years. This 50/50 dilemma speaks to the need for comprehensive smart reentry approaches in the District to address the despairing connection between unemployment and recidivism. We believe entrepreneurship should be a key component of these approaches. The IIEP, as originally passed by the D.C. Council, goes further than any other piece of returning citizen legislation passed by the Council in some time.
Had the Council funded the IIEP, the program would have created an ecosystem of education, business training, investment and services that could give the District the outcomes that similar programs throughout the country are experiencing. Programs such as Rising Tide Capital (New Jersey), Defy Ventures (New York) and Prison Entrepreneurship Program (Texas) demonstrate that the IIEP would have the potential to yield high returns on investment through low recidivism rates, job creation, reduced public assistance use, increased income and businesses with higher-than-average survival rates. Regrettably, the Mayor in her FY2018 proposed budget decided not to fund the IIEP; and the D.C. Council also failed to do the right thing during their budget mark-up.
The magnitude of the despair and lack of opportunity for D.C.’s returning citizen population is clear. Studies cite more than 60,000 individuals living in the District with a prior conviction, and each year 2,000 to 8,000 return to the District after incarceration. In the Mayor’s response to the Council’s questions on her FY2018 budget proposal, she stated that there are “850 persons released a month from the Department of Corrections today” but they estimate “365 a month” they can serve. The IIEP model is structured to meet the needs of a larger number of individuals then any existing program of its kind in the District, and can help fill in the gap of 5,820 returning citizens the Mayor leaves to fend for themselves each year.
These numbers are astounding and an embarrassment for the city. If the District is unable to provide viable and sustainable employment opportunities to our returning citizens, then why not provide them the skills and means to create their own? The IIEP would provide comprehensive training to assist returning citizens in starting a business, creating a pathway to self-sufficiency via self-employment.
The IIEP could have created a sustainable path to self-sufficiency for the District’s returning citizens. Was the council’s passing the act simply a political ploy to look progressive without having to live up to it? Bowser said that the returning-citizen community not only has a seat at the table, but it’s their table as well. Was that simply lip service?
It is important to begin establishing effective coalitions with those in our community with similar interests. Those who are affected by the Council’s negligence must be willing to engage and advocate on their own behalves. There is no doubt that if the 67,000+ returning citizens in the District were mobilized, organized, and on one accord, their concerns could not be ignored. This type of movement would be able to effectuate real change in our government and its budget priorities. When growing up we remember hearing the older folks say, “closed mouths don’t get fed.” We call on those of like minds to collaborate with us, come to the table to lend voices about what is needed and hold our lawmakers accountable.
Kevin Smith works for the D.C. Council. Kimberly A. Nelson is a life coach and nonprofit consultant. They are working with the DC Reentry Task Force to fund the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program.