Tonight in America, nearly 2.3 million people will sit behind bars. Roughly 700,000 inmates will be released into the community this year, oftentimes without income, shelter, education, or support from their families. Over half of them will commit another crime within three years, perpetuating a cycle that enables the United States to have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners. Is there a way to intervene in the lives of inmates and communities to prevent this phenomenon? Can we reduce crime and make prison more cost-effective and meaningful? Donors and nonprofit leaders met in Houston in February to discuss these questions and more.
The meeting started with a site visit to Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a transformational entrepreneurship boot camp housed within the Cleveland Correctional Center. Working with inmates within three years of release, PEP facilities relationships between executives and ex-offenders, creating a community committed to inner life change and an entrepreneurial spirit. Participants had a chance to interact with inmates and witness for themselves how PEP participants and staff “walk the walk” and hold each other accountable to live a truly new life.
How does this new life start? PEP engages participants in a rigorous six-month entrepreneurship boot camp designed to equip participants with the skills and knowledge to succeed after prison and develop the integrity and character to thrive long term. The application process for PEP itself is extensive, and statistically more difficult than Harvard for acceptance. Participants are involved in over 1,000 hours of college-level training in addition to group accountability sessions, daily homework, and the requirement to “pitch” their business plan over 120 times in front of others. Since 2004, PEP has graduated over 850 people. One hundred percent of its recent graduates have secured a job within 90 days of release from prison, and over 120 have formed businesses. The recidivism rate for PEP graduates is less than 5%, leagues lower than the national average.
At the heart of the curriculum is a business plan, crafted individually by each inmate and presented in a shark tank format to outside executive volunteers. Inmates are taught about and practice market research, financing, and product placement, as well as how to dress and act professionally in the business world. As a result, Baylor University now provides every PEP graduate with a Certificate in Entrepreneurship.
The support structure built during PEP extends outside prison to three transition homes, as well as an extensive and engaged alumni network of over 650 volunteers and hundreds of ex-offenders. For donor and volunteer Pat O’Brien, the life change is evident enough that he has hired PEP graduates to work for his construction company. “PEP produces tangible results that you can touch. I can make a positive impact on someone’s life where otherwise they wouldn’t have the opportunity to succeed. I don’t think I’ve done anything with a nonprofit that has given me more satisfaction than being involved with PEP.”
And Pat isn’t the only one. PEP employs 17 full-time staff members (over half of whom are PEP graduates). Over 400 executives attend PEP’s monthly prison events, and over 200 more serve as remote regular business plan advisors. PEP is currently exploring ways to actively build for-profit businesses to supplement private donations, in hopes of expanding the PEP model beyond Texas.
What can donors take away from a program like PEP?
- Focus on those who have a desire to succeed and help themselves
- Building healthy community facilitates inner change and, eventually, economic growth
- Transformation is possible, even in prison
The next day meeting highlighted a number of strategies for engaging in criminal justice reform, including policy creation, grassroots mobilization, victim restoration, job readiness and placement, and nationwide campaigns to change the public narrative on prison.
In Texas, the Right on Crime initiative has changed conservative conversations about prison reform. A project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a free-market public policy institute, Right on Crime is committed to limited government, free markets, private property rights, individual liberty, and personal responsibility. It has become a national force, influencing 23 states and gaining noted signatures of Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, Grover Norquist, and Bill Bennett to its statement of principles. Business associations are also signing on and advocating alongside Right on Crime for several policy reforms, ranging from reduced incarceration and probation reform to repealing occupational license barriers.
Governors who have implemented recent reforms include John Kasich (OH), Nathan Deal (GA), Tom Corbett (PA), and Rick Perry (TX). Right on Crime has drawn praise most recently in a continuing stream of media coverage from The American Conservative, Washington Monthly, NPR, Florida Independent, and the Austin American Statesmen, among others.
The idea for Right on Crime originally came from Tim Dunn, vice chairman of TPPF, who realized there was a conservative void in effective policies surrounding criminal justice. “Our criminal justice system is more suitable to a tyranny. We don’t focus on restoring the victim; we are focused on crushing the life of the perpetrator.” He saw that the main customer of the criminal justice system was the government, resulting in an unchecked increase in government power. To address this concern, he contacted Brooke Rollins, president of TPPF, who has since built a program, directed by Marc Levin, that serves as a one-stop shop for conservative policy ideas in the field.
What can donors take away from policy initiatives like Right on Crime?
- Political conditions are ripe for criminal justice public policy reform
- Conservatives can rally around the pillars of fighting crime, prioritizing victims, and protecting taxpayers
- Philanthropy can fuel the policy networks necessary to think of innovative paths to reform
When Mayor Booker took office in Newark in 2006, the prospects for the city were bleak: a serious budget deficit threatened massive lay-offs for city employees and high amounts of crime were exacerbated by scores of people facing eminent release from state and city jails. As many as 1 in 6 city residents had a criminal record.
To work on this problem, Booker took the unconventional route of consulting the Manhattan Institute, New York’s free-market public-policy think tank, to develop a responsive approach. Together, they launched an innovative public-private partnership focused on helping formerly incarcerated individuals find work, led by Ingrid Johnson of the Manhattan Institute. “The biggest need and desire of people coming home is that they want a job. They want to be there for their families; they want to be self-sufficient,” said Johnson.
Since opening its doors four years ago, the office has placed 1150 people in unsubsidized employment. Of the first 900 people placed, 70% of all placements have maintained the job for six months. The office is currently focusing its services to violent offenders, those least likely to find jobs, and who, if they reoffend, cost the most to the state and the community. This has led to partnerships with the police and other city authorities.
What has been the key to this program’s success? According to Johnson, they’ve implemented a performance based culture. “We issue contracts in the community for agencies to provide these job placements. No one is paid the full amount of their contract unless they meet the benchmarks set out. We pay for success. We watch data very closely. When we see problems, we deploy targeted technical assistance. We go out to the site and say ‘What is going on here?’ ‘What is going on with this trend in your data?’ We make sure the data has integrity.”
Implementing and facilitating competitive contracts has not been politically easy. However, as an executive on loan from the Manhattan Institute, instead of an employee of the city, Johnson has flexibility to make hard decisions without calculating the political cost. Her office of five is funded by four different entities: private philanthropy, the U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Department of Justice, and sales from foreclosed properties. Little money comes from the City of Newark.
What can donors take away from public private partnerships like the Newark Office of Reentry?
- Metrics matter. Decide in advance what the expected outcomes are for vendors and hold them accountable
- Diffused funding enables higher degrees of risk-taking, particularly in politically charged contexts
- Rapid attachment to work is a key indicator in successful reentry and reduced recidivism.
- Donors, working through organizations like the Manhattan Institute, can take the lead in innovation and implementation.
These are only a handful of the strategies and models open to donors with an interest in criminal justice reform. For more information about this meeting or how you can get involved with The Philanthropy Roundtable, please contact Ashley May (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The next Economic Opportunity event will be May 15 and 16 in Kansas City, Missouri. We’ll be at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to talk about 10 Great Ways Donors can Support Entrepreneurship. To register, please visit our event page.
Organizations featured at this meeting: