- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Rhode Island’s top federal prosecutor is pushing employers to hire ex-cons.

U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha’s re-entry program aims to find more jobs for convicted felons who struggle to find work once they’ve done their time.

The program is holding a summit May 25 to bring together employers, government officials and others with a goal of expanding the pool of employers willing to place ex-inmates in jobs.

It’s part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to help felons resume life once they are released from prison.

Here’s a closer look at what’s behind the push:

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THE PROBLEM

Every year, 600,000 inmates are released nationwide, and 3,000 are released in Rhode Island, according to figures from the U.S. Attorney’s office. In Rhode Island, the federal probation department supervises around 500 people, according to John Marshall, deputy chief U.S. probation officer. That group has an unemployment rate of around 25 percent, he said.

“If they’re not working in a short period of time after they’re out … there’s going to be trouble,” Neronha said. “When people reoffend, there is a tremendous cost.”

It costs anywhere from $42,000 to $184,000 per year to keep a person behind bars in Rhode Island. Around half of offenders in the state return to prison, and 54 percent of those return within 9 months, the U.S. Attorney’s office said.

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THE BARRIERS

Felons face a number of hurdles when trying to get a job.

Transportation to and from work can be a challenge, especially for a person who may have lost his driver’s license. Attorney General Loretta Lynch last month called on states to make it easier for convicted felons to obtain an ID.

The lack of stable housing also is an issue for some. Many have struggled with substance abuse, mental health issues or “criminal thinking,” Marshall said. His office works to get them treatment before they go back in the workforce, he said.

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THE PITCH

Employers who hire an ex-felon within a year of the person’s release from prison can receive a $2,400 tax break per person, according to the state Department of Labor and Training. Last year, the state received 136 applications for the credits. The state also provides other incentives to hire ex-cons, including programs that apply to hiring any unemployed adult. One gives tax credits to companies for on-the-job training, another gives a 50 percent wage reimbursement to employers that provide temporary work.

In addition, many inmates have received job skills training while imprisoned, said A.T. Wall, the state’s corrections director.

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INTANGIBLE BENEFITS

People recently released from prison are eager to reclaim their lives, Wall said.

“It’s very important to them that they be perceived as individuals who have learned their lesson,” he said. “A job signifies that you are responsible. It is the highest priority of our inmates when they are leaving prison.”

Many are highly motivated and willing to work in menial jobs, then work their way up after proving themselves, Neronha said.

“These are people who want to work,” Neronha said. “We can’t just write off this human capital.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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