Spotlight Exclusives

The Reentry Employment Opportunities Program is Crucial to Building a Strong Workforce

Brandi Mandato Brandi Mandato, posted on

For the more than 600,000 individuals released from state and federal prisons each year, the federal Reentry Employment Opportunities (REO) program can be a critical component of policies that assist returning citizens with finding and retaining employment. As Congress continues to consider reauthorization of REO, Jobs for the Future has published a new brief outlining both the current strengths of the program and how it can be improved. Spotlight spoke with Brandi Mandato, senior director in the Center for Justice & Economic Advancement at JFF, about the brief and the work the Center is doing in general. The transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Why don’t we start with an overview of the Normalizing Opportunity framework that you use, and then we can talk about the new brief on REO?

Happy to. The Normalizing Opportunity framework is a comprehensive policy framework and also an invitation to policy leaders at the federal and state level to think comprehensively about the way that we approach economic mobility and advancement for people with records. It means really focusing on all of the things we know drive economic mobility and contextualizing them to address the many barriers that have been put in place by both policy and practice. The goal is to create an environment where it is more likely that someone with a record is able to succeed, have a choice-filled career, re-enter into their community and find economic stability.

And how long has JFF been using that frame?

We published the framework last year and it was really developed in community with the field, which has been doing this work in a grassroots way for decades. When the Center for Justice and Economic Advancement was launched, it really was with the goal of focusing on economic mobility—the intersection of justice and economic and workforce development for people with records. And that includes people that are currently incarcerated and people that have previously been incarcerated.

And is the major change from previous frameworks the holistic nature of it?

It is. I think in the past, there hasn’t been a real infrastructure in place to allow states, national actors, even tight-knit communities, to combine their resources to think about the full set of factors that impact someone’s life when they’re looking to rebuild a career after engagement with the legal system.

And since you came out with this, is there anywhere at the state and local level that you’re seeing people latch onto this and do interesting things?

We’re seeing really interesting work happening in places like Louisiana, Tennessee, and Ohio, where we’re bringing together leaders from the Department of Corrections, from the governor’s office, heads of economic and workforce development, and the Board of Regents to think about the full trajectory of someone’s experience from that first initial contact with the legal system to talent development, education, training, and access to employment in quality jobs in high growth fields. The idea is to really reflect on the policies that are in place that in some cases bar people completely from some of those high-growth occupations or sectors based on a conviction history.

And that sounds like a real mix of red and blue states as well.

There’s a lot of bipartisan support for this work; it’s an issue of economic mobility, of poverty alleviation. The devil has always in the details, but I think right now at the federal level, we’re seeing lots of support for a codification of the Reentry Opportunity Employment opportunities as a piece of that and there’s more support and rigor around programs associated with it.

Okay, why don’t we move ahead then to the REO brief, which was recently published?

It really is a re-envisioning of REO, one that is intentionally focused on the holistic nature of the work. REO provides funding for a range of opportunities intended to improve labor market outcomes and it is currently funded under the Employment and Training Administration of the Department of Labor.

Talk a little bit about what you’re trying to do in this brief.

We highlight some of the great work that’s been possible through REO, even in its less formal state before it became its own codified statute, and the new possibilities that opens up, particularly by providing a really intensive evaluation component and allowing for testing of good quality programs and outcomes for the population. This is a population in a field where we’re working really hard to get good data, and there are so many data gaps around labor market participation, occupational exclusion, and segregation. Having REO become a more formal part of the WIOA (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) should help put the infrastructure to be in place to support that kind of evaluation.

We also call out the need to prioritize pre-release services. So, when folks are incarcerated, there’s a real opportunity there to provide robust, high-quality training that leads to a good job on the outside. And when we make that direct connection, we see better outcomes. We see folks that are able to land on their feet, to begin, sometimes before they even come home, earning some money so that they can connect with housing, connect with their community, and put themselves in a position to continue to live their lives and start over. We emphasis the need to focus on high quality pre-release services, including training, education, mental health support, addiction support, etc. That would include a range of funding for supportive services upon release and for folks who may have never been incarcerated, but now have a record and are trying to navigate their career—things like supportive housing, access to training, and removing an exclusion for people to access training and education at colleges and universities based on conviction history. Things like that go a long way.

What’s the status of this reauthorization on the Hill?

The House has put together a reauthorization that includes the codification of REO, which is great, and there’s a lot of bipartisan support for it. We’ve seen this coming in the sense that the Bipartisan Second Chance Task Force in Congress came together to talk about the economic impact of having such a segregated labor market and non-inclusive economic recovery, and really focus on wanting to eliminate those barriers, remove permanent punishment through collateral consequences for this population, and allow them to access the training and education that we know leads to quality jobs.

We anticipate that the Senate will also come out with a reauthorization, and we’ll see where we land there. But I think the appetite for a formal, codified REO that is well supported and funded and allows us to re-envision what’s possible in terms of economic mobility for people with records is a real possibility.

And is that a separate vote on that program specifically, or does that end up being wrapped into an Appropriations bill?

It should be wrapped into Appropriations.

There are obviously many things way beyond your control in, in terms of that process, but it sounds like you do have some bipartisan support.

 Yes, and the advocacy and narrative change piece of this is so essential because I think what most people don’t realize is that even after someone has “served their time,” our current practices and some of our policies have created a system of permanent punishment, where someone in an HR office is going to make a decision about a group’s economic mobility based on, in some cases, anecdotal information and their own personal opinion. We have closed the door for one in three Americans, in some cases, to entire high-growth industries. And at the same time, we’re seeing those industries really suffer for the lack of talent. And there’s in many cases a good match, and in almost all cases a real opportunity for a match with upskilling and investment and training. And so, we’re trying to help make that connection, to the benefit of all of us.

From a narrative standpoint, Spotlight has spent a lot of time trying to present a more positive, solutions-focused narrative across the poverty space. How much do you try to build in the voices of those who are actually living the realities result from these policies or lack of policies?

It’s a critical part of our mission, both because those stories are so inspiring and they’re such good examples of what’s possible when we have the right policy in place. And also, because people that are closest to the challenge often have the most innovative, holistic solutions. It’s part of our mission and our values to not just ensure that we’re telling those stories, but that folks with lived experience are at the table helping us make these decisions and leading the charge when it comes to our policy work, our research, and our overall programming at the Center for Justice and Economic Advancement.

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