Alwin Jacob Smith became a free man last summer after being locked up for 21 years because of what he calls “my little old rocky past” — most notably, robbery and drug possession.
He worked hard while incarcerated, getting an associate degree in ministry, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and substance abuse support groups, and eventually leading those groups as a peer mentor. Mr. Smith’s release, which he celebrated with a steak-and-eggs breakfast, came about through a California law that allows prosecutors to re-evaluate sentences to determine whether they were excessive — in his case, 65 years to life.
And when he was finally released, Mr. Smith, 52, was given an unexpected kind of support in his transition: cash.
The pandemic, which devastated inmates in prisons and jails, made employment even tougher as thousands were released at the very moment that entry-level jobs evaporated in industries like service and construction. A novel initiative known as the Returning Citizen Stimulus began offering money to people just released from prison, and advocates say it is the most straightforward and revolutionary solution.
The cash transfers — an average of $2,750 over three months — have been contingent on achieving certain goals on the way to employment. The program is the brainchild of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a New York-based nonprofit group that provides paid transitional employment, job counseling and related services for people around the country who have just been released from prison.
In April 2020, the organization started distributing cash to some 10,500 former inmates who, like Mr. Smith, lacked recent work histories and therefore did not qualify for federal pandemic relief checks. The payments were doled out through partner organizations in 28 cities and six states, including Colorado, New York and Oklahoma. The latest installment is a collaboration with For the People, a California nonprofit organization that helps ease the release of people serving what have been deemed unduly long sentences — among them Mr. Smith.
The cash allowed him to pay for an expensive repair to an old Honda Accord, donated by his church. Fixing the car’s engine was crucial in helping Mr. Smith travel to interviews and land a job earning $17 an hour at a big-box store. He got a state ID, opened a bank account and, at the initiative’s request, attended anger-management and job-readiness classes. “I wouldn’t be afloat right now,” he said, if not for the monetary lifeline. “It gives you encouragement and motivation to get up and get out and achieve.”
The Returning Citizen payments join a host of reforms — including the sealing of criminal records and “Ban the Box” laws, which eliminate questions about criminal history on job applications, delaying them until later in the process — that have begun to open new possibilities for so-called second chance employees. It is a notion that is being embraced by a growing roster of companies and has been expanding by necessity because of the current labor shortages.
Once a fringe idea, the notion of offering cash to help people get on their feet has been buoyed by initiatives including a prominent experiment in Stockton, Calif., which gave 125 residents of low-income neighborhoods $500 a month for two years. The money helped many of them find full-time employment, a study showed, and it inspired similar pilots in at least 11 U.S. cities.
But giving cash to people released from prison during a pandemic was a new frontier. The initiative was intended to address what Sam Schaeffer, the Center for Employment Opportunities’ executive director, calls “the steeplechase of barriers” people face after a long incarceration: learning how to use a cellphone, send an email and get a driver’s license, not to mention finding a job and a place to live.
They typically emerge with nothing but “gate money” — $10 to $200 depending on the state — often accompanied by debts that can include restitution to their victims.
The net result has been called “post-conviction poverty,” a predicament compounded for the disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino Americans who are incarcerated. According to the Brennan study, people who are imprisoned as young adults will have lost an average of $484,000 in earnings by the end of their working lives.
For those living on the edge who teeter into criminal behavior, receiving cash during a critical transitional period can be a stabilizing force.
Amber Helphingstine, 37, for instance, was living in the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles and spent two years in jail for assault. She found a New Way of Life, a well-known re-entry program for women.
“I had to lie, cheat and steal for what I wanted,” she said of her pre-incarcerated mind-set. The Returning Citizen payments she received through the program “helped me dot my i’s and cross my t’s,” she said. “It made me realize, “Hey, I have the opportunity and the means to do something else with my life.” She is now a detox specialist at a recovery center and an honors student at a community college.
Heather Fitzsimmons, 39, a cash recipient in Denver, was a physician assistant with a house and a family but headed down a slippery slope after she was prescribed opioids for postpartum depression and psychosis — winding up addicted, homeless and in and out of jail.
But looking back, she says her felony arrest in 2019 for check fraud and possession of a controlled substance was “the best thing that ever happened to me.” Probation officers directed her into a residential drug treatment program, and she has been sober ever since.
The cash assistance helped her pay $1,650 in court fines and rent for her apartment. She now works at a rescue mission for people who are homeless, as she had been for six years, providing encouragement and trying to break through the shame that invariably accrues.
The money “is a life-changing gift they provided, honestly,” she said.
The $24.5 million Returning Citizens program was funded by Blue Meridian Partners, a collaborative of philanthropic heavy hitters. An ongoing analysis suggests that so far, the cash payments have had a positive effect on employment: Forty-two percent of recipients were working five months in.
Many are incarcerated at 18 or 19, “ages when they’re supposed to be integrating into the economy,” said Jay Jordan, vice president of the Alliance for Safety and Justice and the national director of TimeDone, a nonprofit group that helps former inmates with record clearance and other issues. “It’s OK, cool,” he said of the $2,750 payments spread out over three months. “But it doesn’t pay for last month’s rent.”
Mr. Jordan, 36, embodies many of the nuanced challenges faced by those coming home. The father of two young boys, his conviction at age 19 for first-degree robbery means he cannot volunteer at his children’s school or coach a soccer team. He and his wife cannot join a homeowner’s association. “It makes me feel dirty,” he said. “It’s dignity that’s lost. You’re not a full citizen.”
Background checks, a $2 billion industry, are conducted by some 95 percent of U.S. employers. But state criminal databases can include things they should not, like tax liens and other civil matters, as well as records of people whose charges were dropped or who were found innocent, which can nevertheless hurt an applicant’s chances.
“Discrimination isn’t evidence-based,” said Colleen McCormack-Maitland, a senior lawyer with the Legal Action Center in New York. “It’s based on fear.”
Some initiatives go further than cash assistance in tackling longstanding social and criminal justice issues. Ban the Box laws have been adopted by 37 states, a plethora of cities and counties and most federal agencies and contractors. Nine states have enacted “clean slate” laws, which remove a range of convictions from the public domain and databases used by employers for most jobs. And pushes to seal criminal records and change occupational licensing laws are allowing former inmates to pursue once-off-limits professions, like embalmer and social worker.
There are signs that employers’ attitudes are beginning to shift, too. Driven by the tight labor market, once-dubious executives are now relying on those whose personal histories may be in stark contrast to their own.
“It’s gone from a moral imperative to a business imperative,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., the chief executive and president of the Society for Human Resource Management.
Villara Building Systems outside Sacramento, which manufacturers heating and plumbing systems, for instance, found itself with a huge demand for personnel because of a boom in residential construction.
To address critical labor shortages, the company’s president, Rick Wylie, who emphasizes his Christian faith, gravitated to “an untapped labor pool that most of the marketplace isn’t interested in or capable of addressing.”
He started a program called New Start and recruited Cory Henderson, 52, who spent three years in prison for grand theft auto, to lead it. Mr. Wylie was bracing for questions about why he was hiring former inmates. But, he thought, “if we can get our company’s leaders to learn how to work with the challenging needs of returning citizens, who need a little more care, we’ll be so much better with the regular population.”
Many companies regard such hires as “employees of last resort,” said Jeffrey D. Korzenik, chief investment strategist for Fifth Third Bancorp and the author of “Untapped Talent: How Second Chance Hiring Works for Your Business and the Community.” Businesses committed to hiring this population “have to approach this with, for lack of a better word, intention,” he said.
Second-chance hiring got a big boost last year with the Second Chance Business Coalition, co-founded by Jamie Dimon, the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, and Craig Arnold, the chief executive of Eaton Corporation, an electrical equipment manufacturer.
In a Guest Opinion essay for The New York Times last year, Mr. Dimon said it was “a moral outrage” that nearly half of formerly incarcerated people were unemployed one year after leaving prison.
Christopher Watler, the Center for Employment Opportunities’ chief external affairs officer, believes that, as with climate change, investor pressure will convert more companies to second-chance employment as a necessity for racial justice. “You cannot be serious about Blacks in America and not open up jobs for people with past convictions,” he said. “But it’s a challenge we have not made a lot of demonstrable progress on.”
In California, Alwin Smith continues to work at the big-box store. Now a cashier’s assistant, he enjoys hobnobbing and joking with customers. He claims that he even has fun refolding clothes customers have strewn all over the floor and picking up discarded diapers and other trash from the parking lot.
He credits the cash assistance program for keeping him grounded while helping him pay for food, clothing and other essentials. Along with his faith, it helped him maintain an upbeat attitude. “The day is what you make of it,” he said. “I have the privilege to be able to get up and go to work, to make somebody smile or be in a good spirit by my presence. That’s a blessing in and of itself.”