An early prison sentence can often become the first step to a lifetime of trips in and out of the United States justice system. In fact, most people convicted of a crime will become a repeat offender, creating a vicious cycle where 2.3 million people were incarcerated in 2016, according to PrisonPolicy.org.
This amounts to more than 20% of all prisoners in the world, yet the U.S. only contains about 4% of the world’s population.
This is a systematic problem that those who run Jail To Jobs, a nonprofit organization based in Cedar Park, Texas — about 25 miles north of Austin — are working to eradicate in their own communities.
In addition to seeing hundreds of kids each year fall into this cycle, most of the people who work there have also experienced this disruptive lifestyle first hand.
“As an organization, we love to hire formerly incarcerated staff members,” said Eddie Franz, the Jail To Jobs Williamson County director. “I think every one of our supervisors, every one of our coordinators and every one of our directors has been to prison. Our founder, Chris Haskins, has a felony on his record, right.
“We kind of understand that society looks at people without experiences and says, ‘You’re no good because you made a mistake.’ Instead, we look at that as ‘I made a mistake, but I didn’t let that stop me. Here’s how I became successful.’”
Jail To Jobs has existed in one form or another for nearly a decade. At first, it was an in-person prison mentorship program, working with kids in the system but over time, those heading the nonprofit realized that no matter how much someone wants to return to become a “productive member of society,” it’s rarely that easy.
Once someone goes to jail, especially if this results in a felony conviction, those individuals will be fighting an uphill battle for a long, long time — maybe the rest of their lives. To put it simply, a felony makes it nearly impossible to find a job, plus most of the kids Jail To Jobs works with do not have the support system required to keep them off the streets or that comes with the transportation needed to get to work, even if they’re able to find employment.
Three years ago, Jail To Jobs decided to employ people themselves by offering a service to anyone between the ages of 14 and 24 who have been to jail. Once employed, those young men and women will receive hands-on training and supervision in a variety of fields, including construction, landscaping and culinary arts — all while earning a wage above what’s minimally required.
Jail To Jobs partners with local businesses that are willing to support the mission and provide the at-risk youth with a job. But instead of employing them directly, the business owner subcontracts the workers through Jail To Jobs, which does not take a cut of the wage, but instead assumes the risk of employment and provides additional benefits such as health insurance.
This way, if someone struggles to show up to work on time at first or doesn’t work out at a particular job site, Jail To Jobs doesn’t have to fire them. They can simply move them to a different job site as they adjust to becoming a productive member of society.
Thus far, Jail To Jobs has proven to be rather successful in breaking the cycle.
“Out of the 448 that we employed, the recidivism rate on those young men and women is less than 20%,” Franz said. “Anywhere from 18 to 20, depending on the year. The national recidivism rate is 75%. Employing these kids … and then helping them get a full-time job, once they complete the program, cuts the recidivism rate by 66%.”
But the program is much more than that. It has also supplied more than 60,000 meals to at-risk youth and given them more than 8,000 rides to and from work, which has allowed it to serve more than 14,000 kids in its communities in addition to the ones it employs.
Jail To Jobs also provides a service to the rest of the communities it serves. It costs anywhere from $31,000 to $60,000 per person each year to keep someone incarcerated, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. That’s why if the cycle is broken early, it benefits everyone. Both the youth and taxpayers.
This was what inspired the city of Round Rock, Texas, to partner with Jail To Jobs. The mayor saw that, over time, paying youth workers is cheaper to his community. Now Round Rock employs a number of Jail To Job workers, who help set up and breakdown equipment for events, work at the city’s recycling center and more.
Because Jail To Jobs also offers optional spiritual services and guidance, it does not receive federal or state funding and thus relies on donations for much of its funding. But those who work at Jail To Jobs realized a long time ago that the key to this mission was actually paying the youth to develop their necessary skills and to work. Thus far, that’s made all the difference.
“There are so many programs out there that come alongside these youth and help them, and they’re great, but they don’t really answer specific immediate needs,” said Saulo Cooper, the chef and chaplain at Jail To Jobs. “A lot of the kids we deal with here are impoverished beyond what you would think. Money changes their situation. It gives them hope.”