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Together, We Can Make Mississippi Safer and Reentry-Ready

Tackling the complexities of reentry is an issue facing Mississippi—as well as every other state in our nation. As I testified this week before a Mississippi State Legislature joint House and Senate Committee hearing on national best practices for reentry, I was left with no doubt that when stakeholders work collaboratively, there’s great potential for meaningful reform.

National studies show that nearly one in three Americans has a criminal record. Out of 650,000 men and women released from prison annually, nearly two out of three will return to prison within three years because of a new crime or a failure to follow the conditions of their release. This cycle, known as recidivism, costs tax-payers millions of dollars, not to mention the toll it takes on families, especially the children of those incarcerated.

Reducing recidivism rates can lead to greater public safety and will reduce the burdens on taxpayers.

A recent study by Recidiviz estimates Mississippi could save $1.3 million dollars in annual costs for every percentage point reduction in the one-year re-incarceration rate. This rate is currently 17.6% in Mississippi. More than 6,600 individuals are released from Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) facilities annually. According to MDOC, 36% of those individuals will return to prison within three years. Planning for reentry must begin when an individual enters the custody of MDOC, not when they leave.

In a report last week by the Council on Criminal Justice, recidivism rates have dropped nationally by nearly 11% due to federal and state investments in reentry programs and private sector initiatives.

In Mississippi, we must address the reentry employment needs of individuals leaving prison, or those on community supervision, by examining three areas. The first is MDOC and programming. The second is community supervision—probation and parole. And the third area is the role played by criminal justice stakeholders like non-government organizations, other government agencies and the community.

Right on Crime leads campaigns to provide employers with the information (data and research) needed to make informed decisions when hiring the formerly incarcerated. Why would an employer want to hire someone with a criminal background? For the same reason to hire any other employee: Employers need good workers to help businesses grow and increase profits.

Whether it’s about providing opportunities within communities or even reasons rooted in religious faith, giving someone a second chance is worth the effort. For example, the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) is a provision of the Internal Revenue Code to encourage employers who hire individuals who meet certain criteria (convicted felons) to claim a tax credit equal to a portion of the wages paid to those individuals. That tax credit is up to $2,400 for people with felony convictions. The purpose of the WOTC program is to assist people who face significant barriers to employment. The removal of many of these barriers will require legislation from Mississippi lawmakers.

While some employers are hesitant to hire people with criminal backgrounds due to the perceived risks, many studies point out that folks with a criminal history “were no more likely to be fired,” “strongly engaged and loyal,” and “were less likely to quit—saving their firms a significant amount of money.”

Additional safeguards exist that can mitigate against certain risks. The U.S. Department of Labor created the Federal Bonding Program to provide free fidelity bonds to employers as a job placement tool to assist formerly incarcerated individuals. The bond covers the first six months of employment and ranges from $5,000 to $25,000, with no deductible amount (the employer gets 100% insurance coverage).  After six months, there is an option to purchase additional bond coverage.

Government services, including public safety, must be evaluated on results and lowest cost. Mississippi is heading in the right direction and legislative hearings on reentry are a critical first step.

Basic opportunities such as employment, housing, and transportation should not be denied to those who have served their time and seek redemption within their communities. We must create a Reentry Ready Mississippi which encourages personal responsibility, provides more opportunities to obtain employment, keeps families together, and reduces recidivism.

Originally published on The Cannon Online

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