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Giving prior offenders a fair chance to work

Tuesday, October 25, 2016   (0 Comments)
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Giving prior offenders a fair chance to work

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President Obama recently made history with the largest number of prison-sentence commutations (214) in a single day in more than a century. These individuals join the estimated 636,000 peoplewho are released from prison in America each year and sent back to their communities.

They face daunting obstacles to employment. The same is true for many of our young people. Our youth unemployment rate remains too high, currently standing at 10.8 percent for 16-to-24-year-olds, or more than double the national unemployment rate. The youth unemployment rate is even higher in some urban centers and among minorities. Today, 5.5 million young people are "disconnected," meaning they are not working nor are they in school. Unbelievable. One in five African-Americans and one in six Latinos between the ages of 16 and 24 fall into this group. The barriers to entry in many industries are high for these Americans.

Restaurants, on the other hand, provide an opportunity for almost everyone to enter the workforce regardless of their background. Restaurants play a crucial role in helping prior offenders re-enter society or providing young people with an entry into the working world, offering jobs and skills training when many other employers can't or simply won't. This is a commitment we at the National Restaurant Association are proud to support. We believe strongly in the value our industry provides to these individuals and to our local communities.

In many cases, we're setting the stage for future employment before individuals even leave the prison system. We're working with job-training programs in correctional facilities, such as the ServSafe food safety training program at the Prince William County (Va.) Adult Detention Center, offering inmates the chance to earn a certification to help jump-start a career in foodservice. Correctional Officer Cindy Thompson is one of the teachers, The Washington Post reports, "[leading] inmates through the certification classes. When she's not in uniform, she runs a catering business."

In Columbus, Ohio, Hot Chicken Takeover owner Joe DeLoss specifically focuses on hiring "prior-offenders, the homeless, and anyone who might otherwise face a barrier to employment." As The Columbus Dispatch reported, "He's tapping into an oft-overlooked and valuable employment pool, he said." It pays off: "(My employees) work incredibly hard, serve a tremendous amount of guests and do it with a smile on their face."

In New York, Apple Metro CEO Zane Tankel, an Applebee's franchisee, has hired dozens of prior offenders at his 36 Applebee's locations. Many started as line cooks but have advanced to managers, Tankel says. Marcellus Benbow is one of them. He spent most of his adult life in and out of prison, until he was released in 2011 and eventually hired by Tankel. "Applebee's saved my life," Benbow recently told Forbes. These are just a few examples of restaurants across the country offering Americans a fair shot at a pathway to success.

Studies confirm what we know anecdotally from restaurateurs: Giving formerly incarcerated people a job is one of the best ways to keep them from returning to the prison system. According to statistics compiled by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington, D.C., of the 262,000 federal prisoners released between 2002 and 2006, 50 percent of those who were unable to secure employment wound up back in prison, generally within two to five years. Conversely, 93 percent of those who got a job and kept it were able to successfully rejoin their communities.

The same goes for young people at risk of becoming disconnected from the worlds of work and school. A 2014 study in Chicago found a 43 percent reduction in arrests for violent crimes among 1,600 teens who participated in the city's summer jobs program.

That's one reason why restaurants are partnering with elected officials, schools and community groups across the country to train Americans from all walks of life. For the second year, Detroit-area restaurants are participating in Mayor Mike Duggan's (D) Grow Detroit's Young Talentprogram, offering 300 young people summer jobs to help them develop skills critical to career success.

Incarceration and recidivism, along with youth unemployment, are major societal challenges without quick fixes. Restaurants are working to be part of a long-term solution. Our policymakers should foster the ability of employers like restaurants to give all Americans a fair chance at employment and a path to a career.

Simpson is the executive vice president of policy and government affairs for the National Restaurant Association.

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