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Terrell Blount was released from prison in 2009 and graduated from Rutgers University four years later. With a bachelor’s degree in hand, he felt invincible, like he was “on top of a mountain” and ready to start his career. He spent about half a year applying for jobs without any success. Meanwhile the six-month grace period to pay back his student loans was ending, and his credit card debt was mounting. Blount couldn’t understand why he wasn’t hearing back from employers after sending out so many résumés.

Blount went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration and is now director of the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network. He said his story is not unique.

“There’s so many people in our network that have degrees—bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, even Ph.D.s,” he said. “They are brilliant minds and they still have trouble finding work, and I think that’s so egregious.”

A new center is being launched to advocate for solutions to the many challenges people with criminal records face in the job market, according to Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization focused on education and the workforce. The Center for Justice and Economic Advancement, founded by JFF, will work with colleges and universities, employers, and policy makers to develop strategies and policies to ease the transition into the job market for people who have been arrested or incarcerated and help them advance in their careers.

The initiative is a partnership between JFF and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which works with state policy makers on criminal justice reform. The center received a two-year planning grant of $6 million from the Justice and Mobility Fund, run by the philanthropy Blue Meridian Partners, to boost economic mobility among formerly incarcerated people.

Hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated people flood the job market each year. More than 650,000 people nationwide are released from prison annually, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. A 2017 ACLU report found that 75 percent of those released from prison remain unemployed a year later.

The stigma of arrest or incarceration lasts well beyond a year for job applicants with criminal records, said Lucretia Murphy, associate vice president at JFF, who will head the new center.

Many college admissions and job applications ask applicants to share their criminal histories. A report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that 72 percent of higher ed institutions required applicants to disclose their criminal records. A movement to eliminate such questions, called “ban the box,” has grown in recent years—the Common App removed the question in 2018. A bill was also reintroduced in Congress last August that would direct the U.S. Department of Education to issue guidance to colleges and universities to eliminate criminal record questions from admissions applications.

“It’s very, very challenging five, 10, 15 years out, for this to still be a question that you have to deal with on the job application, or it can still be a reason for denying you work,” Murphy said. “That’s particularly hard and can be a huge disincentive for what we also know is the hard work of getting jobs and making your way to a postsecondary education.”

She said the center will help individual colleges and state higher education systems better serve students with criminal records. For example, the center might work with colleges to create more welcoming admissions processes, help formerly incarcerated students access state financial aid and develop and improve support programs, among other measures.

A college degree or credential is “particularly important for people with records, because they need to have the skills and competencies to overcome the stigma of the record,” Murphy said.

Monique Ositelu, a higher education senior policy analyst at New America, a liberal Washington think tank, said about a third of people released from prison don’t have a high school diploma or equivalent credential, which leaves them unprepared for the workforce. Many also come into the job market unfamiliar with the technology employers want them to use.

“Most of them do not have the education, the skills to successfully enter the labor market,” she said. “There’s a desire to successfully re-enter, but the system is not set up to support that, which is why I think this initiative is critical, timely and so important.”

The center will also work with employers to adopt more inclusive hiring practices that boost employment and apprenticeship opportunities for people with criminal records, such as removing application questions that ask about criminal history or adopting practices to critically consider whether a conviction is relevant to a specific job.

The center also plans to partner with other organizations, including those run by formerly incarcerated people, to push for policies that remove barriers to employment, such as widespread local and state laws that bar formerly incarcerated people from earning certain kinds of licenses or credentials.

“Formerly incarcerated individuals overwhelmingly occupy low-wage positions—often because of limited access to education, training and credentials that lead to opportunities for career advancement,” Nicole Jarrett, director of the Corrections and Reentry Division at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, said in a press release. “This work is about advocating for changes in policy and practice that can break down barriers to in-demand careers for returning citizens.”

Blount, of the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network, noted that workforce development for formerly incarcerated people isn’t just about helping them secure jobs but ensuring they have options and helping them build careers. He said people come out of prison without much career advising from correctional facilities or college prison programs and with a “deficit mind-set” that they should take any job that accepts them, regardless of their interests.

“We tend to view that population as a group of people where we can fill empty slots in employment and the workforce” rather than potential talent looking for fulfilling work, he said.

Murphy said the center’s goal in the long run is to “make ourselves completely irrelevant.” The hope is to work with partners until “there’s no barrier with people with records; it’s really well understood that this is a really talented pool ready to make a change and commitments in their communities … and that it just no longer is an automatic barrier to economic mobility,” she said.

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