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Making Change: Addressing Skills-training and Employment Needs for Returning Citizens

The need to help justice-involved people—those who have been incarcerated or have criminal records and have interacted with the justice system—is great. Beyond living with a potentially long-lasting stigma, citizens with criminal records are regularly denied opportunities for housing, education, and employment. In its 2018 report Wasted Assets: The Cost of Excluding Ohioans with a Record from Work, Policy Matters Ohio noted that nearly 1 in 4 jobs in Ohio is blocked or restricted for those with a criminal conviction1. The report also estimates that as many as 1 in 3 Ohioans may have a criminal record of some kind.

One program aimed at addressing the skills-training and employment needs for returning citizens is Chopping 4 Change (C4C). C4C provides incarcerated women with pre-release behavioral health services and workforce development training in the culinary industry, as well as connections to employment opportunities. The program was developed through a partnership between Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries (LMM), the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and the Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry.

C4C is available to women incarcerated at the Northeast Reintegration Center in Cleveland. During the program, participants go to the LMM offices five days per week for counseling, support services, and culinary arts training. C4C is divided into three phases: the first focuses on the overall health of participants and covers topics such as life skills, drug and alcohol treatment, and re-entry planning; the second introduces workforce development training, teaching general job-readiness and culinary skills, including cooking techniques, kitchen safety, and terminology; the final phase centers on hospitality training, teaching participants aspects of the culinary industry beyond the kitchen.

After successfully completing the program, participants receive a certificate of completion2. They also may be eligible to get pre-release, real-world work experience through the State of Ohio’s Workforce Training Experience program. C4C graduates within nine months of release may be offered a job working at the Comeback Café, a restaurant located in the Virgil E. Brown Building in downtown Cleveland. This opportunity prepares women for future employment by allowing them to gain experience working in a high-pressure culinary environment.

Early results for C4C have been positive. Since its launch in 2016, more than 150 women have participated in the program. C4C boasts a graduation rate of nearly 90 percent, and nearly 85 percent have been placed in positions after release. Restaurants that have hired C4C graduates include the Marble Room, Il Venetian, and Hilton Downtown Cleveland. Most importantly, the rate of re-offense for C4C graduates is less than 4 percent.

Though helping returning citizens gain employment is a worthy accomplishment in itself, LMM has even higher goals for the program. Knowing the importance of living wage employment to successful re-entry, LMM has worked hard to help C4C graduates secure good-paying jobs. So far, the program is succeeding in this respect. The average starting wage for program graduates is $12.67 per hour—almost $2.00 per hour more than the average living wage for an adult without dependents in Cuyahoga County3. LMM is also working toward an accreditation that would allow women to count C4C participation as credit toward an associate’s degree.

While C4C is a great local effort to support justice-involved people within the Cleveland metro area, the need for additional support for this extremely vulnerable population remains significant. And the justification extends far beyond the typical moral argument (i.e., it is the right thing to do). Finding a quality job is critical for justice-involved individuals hoping to successfully participate in society. And yet, some of the most promising work opportunities may still be out of reach. For example, 4 of the top 10 opportunity occupations (that is, employment accessible to workers without a bachelor’sdegree that typically pays above the national annual median wage) in the Cleveland metro area, as identified in the 2019 Federal Reserve report, are not accessible to people with a criminal record. The collective impact of collateral sanctions—those barriers to employment for the formerly incarcerated—is even more stunning: Policy Matters Ohio’s Wasted Assets report estimates the total amount of wages lost by formerly incarcerated Ohio residents as a result of collateral sanctions is $3.4 billion.

In order to provide vulnerable populations (such as the formerly incarcerated) with real access to opportunity, we all must think of ways to address or remove the barriers that prohibit them from succeeding.

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Footnotes

  1. Shields, Michael and Pamela Thurston. 2018. Wasted Assets: The Cost of Excluding Ohioans with a Record from Work. Policy Matters Ohio. December. policymattersohio.org/research-policy/fair-economy/work-wages/wasted-assets-the-cost-of-excluding-ohioans-with-a-record-from-work.
  2. C4C is accredited by the Council on Occupational Education and the Ohio State Board of Career Colleges and Schools.
  3. Data provided by the MIT Wage Calculator (Wasted Assets: The Cost of Excluding Ohioans with a Record from Work. Policy Matters Ohio. December. https://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/39035.