With 50 percent of the District of Columbia’s returning citizens unemployed and 50 percent of returning citizens back in prison within three years, the link between unemployment and recidivism becomes clear.
This 50/50 dilemma speaks to the need for comprehensive smart reentry programming that includes an entrepreneurship component. The Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program (IIEP) Act of 2016, which the D.C. Council passed July 12, has that element but is not yet funded. If the Council includes the IIEP in its upcoming Fiscal Year 2018 budget, the program will create an ecosystem of education, business training, investment and wraparound services that can give the District the outcomes that similar programs nationally are experiencing.
Programs such as Rising Tide Capital (New Jersey), Defy Ventures (New York) and Prison Entrepreneurship Program (Texas) demonstrate that the IIEP has 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, Mayor Muriel Bowser in her 2018 proposed budget chose not to fund the IIEP. It is now left for the D.C. Council to do the right thing and fully fund the program.
The magnitude of the despair and lack of opportunity for D.C.’s returning citizen population is clear. Although studies cites approximately 67,000 individuals living in D.C. have a prior conviction, we believe the number of District residents with criminal records to be significantly higher as each year 2,000 to 8,000 return to the District after incarceration. Responding to Council questions on her 2018 budget proposal, the mayor stated that the Department of Corrections releases 850 persons monthly but estimates the Bowser administration can serve only “365 a month.”
The IIEP model is structured to meet the needs of a larger number of individuals than any existing D.C. program, and can help fill in the gap that the mayor believes leaves 5,820 returning citizens to fend for themselves each year.
These numbers are astounding. 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 provides comprehensive training to assist returning citizens in starting a business. The D.C. Reentry Task Force’s proposed recommendations for the IIEP raise the bar for reentry in the District by creating a pathway to self-sufficiency via self-employment.
By fostering commitment, accountability, innovation, excellence, and personal transformation through investment in individuals and their businesses, IIEP undoubtedly would have a positive impact on our most disadvantaged communities.
Disappointingly, IIEP is getting little support. Early in the District’s committee review and recommendations process, both the Labor and Workforce Development Committee and the Business and Economic Development Committee, which oversee the two District agencies responsible for establishing the IIEP, raised doubt as to whether the IIEP would be funded. The Workforce Committee chaired by Councilmember Elissa Silverman, states “ recognize the potential benefits that entrepreneurship offers, and … believe finding ways to assist returning citizens reenter the workforce and find employment … is one of the most important issues in workforce development in the District,” but is still unable to find the money.
The IIEP, DC Law 21-159, presents an opportunity for the District to advance a forward-thinking model of reentry with proven effective outcomes. In Mayor Bowser’s first State of District address, she said that returning citizens not only have a seat at the table, but it’s their table as well. In light of her failure to include the IIEP in her FY2018 budget proposal, it is imperative that the D.C. Council find a way to fully fund the IIEP — a law it enacted unanimously.
The IIEP creates a sustainable path to self-sufficiency for the District’s returning citizens. It is time to ameliorate this shameful 50/50 dilemma. The IIEP is the best step in that direction.
Kevin Smith works for the Council of the District of Columbia as a legislative technology specialist in the legislative services division.. Kimberly Nelson, a life coach and non-profit consultant, is founder of Point of Discovery Coaching and Consulting. Smith and Nelson, reentry and prisoner advocates, are both also members of the DC Reentry Task Force, working to fund the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program.