Why TalkPoverty is Hosting Criminal Justice Reform Week

Between 70 million and 100 million Americans have some type of criminal record—that’s nearly one in three of us.

Many have only a minor record—a misdemeanor, or even an arrest without a conviction. But even a minor criminal record carries with it lifelong barriers that can block successful reentry and access to many of the essentials for economic security and upward mobility, like employment, housing, education, and job training.

The reason? Policy choices at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as the rise of technology and the ease of accessing data via the internet. A generation ago, access to criminal record information for housing applicants and jobseekers was unusual. Today, however, background checks are ubiquitous, with 4 out of 5 landlords and nearly 9 in 10 employers using criminal background checks to screen out people with criminal records before they even get a shot.

The result is that tens of millions of individuals are prevented from becoming productive members of society, and their families, communities, and the national economy are held back as well.

It is important to note that the lifelong consequences and stigma of having a criminal record stand in stark contrast to research on “redemption.”  Studies show that once a person with a nonviolent conviction is crime-free for three to four years, his or her risk of recidivism is no different from the risk of arrest for the general population. Put differently, people are treated as criminals long after they pose any significant risk of committing further crimes—making it difficult for many to achieve basic economic security, much less upward mobility.

As detailed in a new Center for American Progress report to be released tomorrow—which I co-authored with Sharon Dietrich—mass incarceration and hyper-criminalization are now major drivers of poverty and inequality. Having a criminal record can stand in the way of employment, housing, public assistance, education and training, and more; convictions can result in significant monetary debts too. In fact, a recent study finds that our nation’s poverty rate would have dropped by 20 percent between 1980 and 2004 if not for mass incarceration and the subsequent criminal records that burden people for years after they have paid their debts to society.

Communities of color—and particularly men of color—are disproportionately affected, and high-poverty communities generate a disproportionate share of Americans behind bars. Approximately 60% of people in America’s prisons are racial and ethnic minorities.  Of those individuals serving time for drug offenses, about two-thirds are black or Latino.  Research shows that mass incarceration and its effects have been significant drivers of racial inequality in the U.S., particularly during the past three to four decades.

Millions of individuals are prevented from becoming productive members of society, and their families, communities, and the national economy are held back as well.

The barriers associated with a criminal record also hurt the nation’s bottom line. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that the cost of people with criminal records being shut out of the labor market is a $65 billion annual hit to GDP. And that’s in addition to our nation’s skyrocketing expenditures for mass incarceration, which now total more than $80 billion annually.

It’s long past time that we create policies to ensure that Americans with criminal records have a fair shot at earning a decent living, providing for their families, and joining the middle class. Failure to address the lifelong barriers associated with a criminal record as part of a larger anti-poverty, pro-mobility agenda risks missing a major piece of the puzzle.

President Obama’s administration has been a leader on this important issue, for example by establishing the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which has brought 20 federal agencies together to coordinate and advance effective re-entry policies. States and cities across the country are also beginning to take action: To date, 13 states and 70 municipalities have enacted fair-chance hiring policies to help level the playing field for jobseekers with criminal records. And cities such as New Orleans and New York City have taken steps to remove obstacles to public housing for people with records.

But further action is needed at all levels of government. Our new report offers a roadmap for the Obama administration and federal agencies, Congress, states and cities, employers, and colleges and universities to ensure that a criminal record no longer presents an intractable barrier to economic security and mobility.

Bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform is growing, due in part to the enormous costs of mass incarceration, as well as an increased focus on evidence-based approaches to public safety. Policymakers and opinion leaders from across the political spectrum are calling for sentencing and prison reform, as well as policies that give people a second chance. Now is the time to find common ground and enact meaningful reforms that ensure a criminal record does not consign an individual to poverty.

We are thrilled that in conjunction with our report, is featuring posts throughout the week from leaders in the criminal justice reform movement—including the Brennan Center, the Vera Institute of Justice, The Sentencing Project, the Center for Court Innovation, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and more—all exploring the link between mass incarceration and poverty, and solutions that would break that link. This week is not intended to be a comprehensive examination of criminal justice reform—we know it will only scratch the surface. But we hope it will help advance this important conversation, and we look forward to continuing its commitment to criminal justice reform throughout the year.




In Our Backyard Interview: Bringing Everyone to the Table

This interview with D.C. Central Kitchen continues our In Our Backyard series. D.C. Central Kitchen does critical work to provide job training for individuals who face barriers to employment and to connect them with job opportunities. They also prepare thousands of meals every day from food that otherwise would have been thrown away. This Thanksgiving, D.C. Central Kitchen provides a valuable example of how paying workers  living wages and good benefits supports communities.

Alyssa Peterson: Can you explain the mission of D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK)?

Mike Curtin: We run a whole portfolio of social enterprise programs including catering and a locally-sourced, scratch-cooked school [meals] service here in D.C.

We also run culinary job training classes for men and women with histories of incarceration, addiction, abuse, homelessness, and chronic unemployment. We work with them intensely for 14 weeks, and empower them to find employment in the hospitality sector. If we have openings available, we will hire job training program graduates [for our social enterprise] programs… One of the beautiful things about [DCCK] is that 45% of our 150 employees are graduates of our program.

Our basic model is using what’s existing around us; whether that’s food that’s going to be thrown away, or people that have been marginalized, or kitchens that aren’t being used, or produce from farms that isn’t commercially viable because it’s aesthetically or geometrically challenged– it’s too big, or too small, or too skinny, it doesn’t fit in the right box.

We prepare 5,000 meals a day out of our main kitchen, using predominantly food that would have otherwise been thrown away from restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, food wholesalers, food producers, and farms. We then send the meals we prepare to agencies [(non-profits and shelters)] that are working to empower and liberate their clients. We are very intentional about this model. Our goal isn’t to simply pass out food in the hopes that someday that will end hunger. We’re never going to feed our way out of hunger.

Video Credit: Saba Aregai (Portfolio)

Alyssa: In terms of empowering and liberating clients, do you have an example of that?

Mike Curtin: The goal is to help people get to the place of self-sufficiency so that they have a job that pays a good wage that hopefully has benefits. One of the things that we often forget when we talk about civil rights leaders in the past, such as Dr. King, Gandhi, Chavez, or Bobby Kennedy, is that these folks were not just talking about physical inclusion.

Dr. King was not fighting and ultimately dying for the right for anyone to walk into any restaurant and sit at any table; [it] was for the right for anyone to walk into any restaurant, to sit at any table, and to be able to afford that meal. So it’s the economic freedom and the economic inclusion that we’re looking for.

For example, a student comes from a shelter into our training program. They’ve been incarcerated, maybe in a halfway house, maybe in prison for 30 years. Maybe this person is in their 50s and has never had a job. Maybe this person has children. And they come to us, and they go through the training program, and they get a job. And they get out of the halfway house. They get their own apartment. They support their families. That’s empowerment. That’s liberation. It’s a small start, but it’s a start.

Some of the most rewarding times for us are when graduates come in and show a gas bill or a lease they just signed. Someone may come in with a new set of keys to a house, and the only people that they’ve known that have had keys for the last 30 years were prison guards.

Alyssa: What separates your training program from others and also contributes to its success?

Mike Curtin: I think one of the things that makes the program different is that it’s part of this larger enterprise. People that work here in the kitchen are graduates of [our training] program. The woman who’s the director of that program was a heroin addict for 20 years. She got clean and went to culinary school and then eventually ended up coming here.

Even if some of us don’t have those particular stories, all of us come here a little broken, including myself. But I’ve been lucky to live in safe communities, go to good schools, and have a stable family life. I made a lot of mistakes, but I always had someone put me back on track.

We really try to create this environment where we’re all around this same table. It will only work if we work together.

A lot of the folks that come to us didn’t have those privileges. For that reason, we meet people where they are. In the old charity model in America, there’s one group—typically the wealthier, white group— saying, “Thank goodness that we’re here for you poor, uneducated, and formerly incarcerated people. Now we’re going to save you. Now we’re going to help you.”

In contrast, we really try to create this environment where we’re all around this same table. [It] will only work if we work together, regardless of whether a person is a felon, an addict, or homeless. We’re all cutting the same carrots, and we’re all learning how to do this together.

Alyssa: Does DCCK do a lot of advocacy in D.C.? Were you involved in the Ban the Box fight, for example?

Mike Curtin: We were. We are not an advocacy organization per se, [but] we work very closely with other organizations in town that are advocacy organizations.

Ban the Box was a big thing for us. We’ve been banging that drum for at least ten years. We know that the majority of people who get out of prison reoffend and go back again mostly because they can’t get a job. At DCCK, our recidivism rate is less than 2.5% because people get jobs, and they feel like they’re part of something bigger. They want to be part of the community. Nobody wants to be in prison, [and] nobody wants to live in the shelter.

Alyssa: It seems like your business model differs markedly from companies that don’t necessarily share your purpose. Why do you pay good wages and benefits as a company?

Mike Curtin: I don’t think we can expect other employers to provide benefits and pay living wages if we don’t do it ourselves. What we want to do is act as a model for what’s possible.

We start everyone at a living wage. We paid 100% of health insurance long before the ACA [(Affordable Care Act)] was ever around. Everyone has short-term and long-term disability insurance and a life insurance policy. We make a 50% match to every dollar that someone contributes to our 401k plan. We have a very liberal, very generous paid vacation and time off policy. Everyone who works here…from the newest hourly employer to myself has the exact same benefits.

However, in many ways we have an advantage. We are a mission-motivated business. We’re in business not to make dollars, but to make change in both senses of that word. We’re okay if we run our businesses, and we break even because the act of running that impact-oriented business has accomplished many of our goals.

We want business in general and others to think more like we do. A lot of people are saying now that non-profits need to think and act more like businesses. To a certain degree, yes. We have payroll to make just like everyone else. We have bills to pay, gas to put in our trucks, uniforms to buy, and food to purchase. But I think the role of non-profits—particularly non-profits who are operating social enterprises—is to get businesses to think more like non-profits and to recognize the value of these multiple bottom lines.



Will Louisville Be Next to Raise the Minimum Wage? (Updated)

UPDATE (December 19): Louisville just became the first southern city to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour. The increase will take effect by 2017. Louisville is the 12th U.S. city to raise the minimum wage this year.  Congratulations to Councilwoman Attica Scott, Kentucky Jobs with Justice, and the many allies who have worked on this issue.

Linda lives at a local shelter with two children. She works full-time in the health care industry and earns $8 per hour, resulting in a yearly income of $16,640 before taxes. Even in the unlikely event Linda were to find an apartment for less than $600 per month with cheap utilities, she would still have only $200 left for all of her other monthly bills, including food, clothing, transportation, child care, and health care. Finding an apartment she can afford also might mean living in a neighborhood where it is difficult to get to work.

Linda’s story of struggling from paycheck-to-paycheck is one that we hear far too often in Louisville and across the nation. Unfortunately, Congress and our state legislature have both failed to raise the current $7.25 an hour minimum wage. Now, low-wage workers in Louisville have placed their hope in the hands of the Louisville Metro Council and Mayor Greg Fisher.

The current proposal supported by workers and advocates would gradually increase Louisville’s minimum wage over three years to $10.10. This is only a start, since it is significantly less than the $11.48 living wage that former Mayor Jerry Abramson called for during his tenure. Moreover, the average monthly rent in Louisville is $694 and families will need to earn $13 per hour in order to afford housing and other household expenditures.  Like Linda, more than half of the adults living in Louisville homeless shelters are employed, some working full-time.

With more than 18 percent of Louisvillians now living below the poverty line of $18,552 annually for a family of three, we must do what we can locally to raise the minimum wage so it is no longer a poverty wage. An estimated 22 percent of low-wage workers in Louisville would benefit from a minimum wage increase, including 62,500 workers who make less than $10.10, and another 24,800 workers who would indirectly benefit once wage scales were adjusted upward.

And while the opposition would have us believe that undeserving teenagers working in the fast food industry will primarily benefit from an increased minimum wage, the fact is that among affected workers the average age is 35 years old; more than one-third are at least 40 years old; and most of the workers are women.  I hear the opposition clearly when they say that there may be minimal job loss, or that raising the minimum wage will not end poverty; and I understand that some businesses may have to increase their prices.

But the cost of goods and services is already increasing every year without the benefit of a minimum wage increase. And while raising the minimum wage will not end poverty, it will indeed help move some people out of poverty, and others who are on the cusp of poverty will no longer need assistance.

In order to help businesses adapt to increased wages, sponsors of the Louisville minimum wage legislation intentionally designed it to increase gradually over three years. We are committed to supporting businesses and we have proven that repeatedly by providing economic development incentives. During the last decade, we have used tax dollars to give tax breaks to the Yum Center, General Electric, Kentucky Kingdom, Colonial Gardens, and Cordish Companies, just to name a few beneficiaries. Now we are asking businesses to invest in their workers.  I know that there are areas of agreement that should be our focus: reducing income inequality, creating job stability, establishing fair wages, promoting compassion, and reducing poverty. We can get there and raising the minimum wage is a good start.

As the Labor and Economic Development Committee of the Louisville Metro Council prepares to vote on the minimum wage ordinance on December 4, I hope that we keep in mind that we simply cannot afford the price of poverty and we cannot afford to ignore working families. We can and we should raise the wage in Louisville.


First Person

65 Hours a Week and No Benefits

Yesterday, the Center for American Progress Action Fund hosted an event marking the release of Half in Ten’s annual report, “Building Local Momentum for National Change.” Virgil Pack, a restaurant worker from Richmond, Virginia, offered these remarks.

Good morning, my name is Virgil Pack, I’m 45-years-old and I live in Richmond, Virginia. I’m a father of two kids—a daughter and a son. My daughter’s name is Ashleigh, she’s 21 and attending UDC in her junior year. My son’s name is Sean, he’s 13 and lives in Albany, NY.

I have worked in the restaurant industry for most of my life. I have three jobs and work about 65 hours a week but every month is a struggle to make ends meet. I’m a crew trainer for Wendy’s where I make $7.75 an hour; I’m a shift manager at Sonic’s Drive-In where I make $11.00 an hour and unfortunately they’re cutting my hours; and for my third job, I’m a crewmember at Moe’s Southwest Grill where I make $7.75 an hour.

This means that at the end of each month, I have $915 to pay for rent, utilities, and more. I pay child support for my son, Sean, which is payroll deducted from Wendy’s.  I also help my daughter Ashleigh with college.  I have absolutely no benefits at any of my jobs—no health insurance, no paid sick leave.  I have 2 years of college under my belt and I used to run my own business, but in this economy, this is the only work I can find. God forbid I get seriously ill or injured, I’d probably be homeless.

Like the federal minimum wage, Virginia’s minimum wage is still $7.25 an hour, which you can see is just simply not a livable wage. And to make low and inadequate wages even worse, the lack of benefits makes it that much harder to get by: without paid sick days or paid leave, I’m forced to choose between going to work sick or losing needed income to support my family, or possibly even losing my job, and if there’s a family emergency I have to choose between the same impossible choices.

However, I am excited to say that I have an appointment with a navigator on Thursday of this week to enroll in a health insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act. The idea that I will shortly have health insurance is such a huge weight off my shoulders and an absolute blessing for me and my family.  However, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Without higher wages and better quality jobs, I’ll still be running in place.

In Virginia, raising the wage would affect over 744,000 workers, which is more than 20 percent of the workforceAnd many people like me, work so hard, yet with wages so low and no paid leave or other benefits, we’re stuck or falling behind. Not only would raising the wage enable families like mine to put more food on the table and know that we can pay rent each month, it would make us feel appreciated and respected as workers.

I would like to take the time to say that I’m not up here for sympathy but I would like for people to see that there are Americans trying to live right and would like a fair chance at the American dream, which to me is family and prosperity….

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this opportunity.


First Person

After the Election: Organize, Mobilize, Agitate…then Vote.

Editor’s Note: On the weekend following the election, the Half in Ten campaign co-hosted a poverty summit in Miami, Florida with Catalyst Miami, a non-profit organization dedicated to building a community and economy that benefit all of the state’s residents.  More than 200 political and civic leaders, advocates, and community residents discussed a range of issues and strategies to address them, including: Medicaid expansion, immigration reform, criminal justice, housing and transportation, wages and opportunity, education, and media coverage of poverty. 

Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard closed the summit with the following remarks.

I lead the Florida Democratic Party so on Wednesday I was pretty spent emotionally and physically.  But this anti-poverty summit we had just around the corner made me psyched.  It served as a reminder: “Time to get up off your butt.  We got work to do.”

We’ve got to organize, and we’ve got to change hearts and minds.

And we have a message that we can’t forget and have to keep pushing: People are suffering.  People are suffering.  People are suffering.  Not only in Miami, Florida, but nationwide—and we must serve as a catalyst for change.

There is a lot of money, and a lot of egos, trying to deafen this message.  And we need to stop waiting on ‘go betweens’ to deliver our message for us.

You don’t need people to be your voice—you are the voice

You all are the halls of power.  You don’t need people to be your voice—you are the voice.  You need to be active—at city hall, at the state capitol, and in Washington, DC.

People will see in you a chance to change the world we live in.  They will see the ability to be their own Gandhi, their own Dr. King, their own catalyst for change.

There’s only one way to change income inequality in this country: organize, mobilize, agitate and disrupt the current flow of B.S. from Tallahassee to D.C.

Your job is to hold the policymakers fully accountable.  And that doesn’t begin at the ballot box.  It needs to be a constant barrage that says, ‘If you are not the change agent I need, you are dismissed.’

And we need to believe in the power of the vote.  Scotland recently voted on whether to separate from Great Britain—89 percent of the voting population participated.

That’s called democracy.

Denmark—on a regular basis—has no less than 86 percent voter participation.  That’s why they have a $22 an hour minimum wage.  Unionized labor.  Universal healthcare.  Paid college tuition.  How?  It begins and ends with 86 percent participation every election.

When you average about 40 percent participation like we do in the United States—you get what you deserve.

So organize, mobilize, agitate—be the change agent you need to be.