Testimony in Support of the DC Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program

Testimony in Support of the DC Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program

District of Columbia Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program 

Rabbi Charles Feinberg

DC Council

May 4, 2017

My name is Charles Feinberg, I am the executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights. Interfaith Action for Human Rights is a mid-Atlantic coalition of faith communities. We seek to change the culture, policy or practices that cause torture or violate human dignity. Our guide is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the wisdom of our respective faiths. Our main agenda is criminal justice reform in Maryland, the District, and Virginia as well as countering bigotry, especially anti-Muslim bigotry.  I am a DC resident and I reside in Ward 4. 

I speak in support of the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program (IIEP) which has the potential to make a real dent in the high unemployment rates for returning citizens. I am here to ask that as chairperson of this committee you work with your colleagues to appropriate up to $10 million to the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Fund (IIEF) for DC Law 21-159.  The Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program would provide business education and training for returning citizens to assist them in starting a business or fulfill other professional goals. The IIEP was passed unanimously by the Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs and then by the full council in July, 2016. 

According to the recent report on Reentry issued by the Council for Court Excellence (CCE), “employment is a major problem for returning citizens.  Among employable returning citizens entering supervision during 2015, 71 percent reported they were unemployed.  Unfortunately, D.C.’s job market poses special challenges for the city’s returning citizens.  In 2012, nearly half of the job openings in the D.C. metro area required a college degree, a rate 10 percent higher than other metro areas.  It is projected that by 2020, 76 percent of all jobs in D.C. metro area will require post-secondary education.[1]

According to the CCE report, increased unemployment among returning citizens leads to decreases in drug dealing, violent crime, and property crime.  Returning citizens have to overcome many obstacles in order to find employment.  The majority of returning citizens remain unemployed.  According to the CCE report, “national surveys of returning citizens find that as many as 60 to 75 percent remain jobless up to a year after release.[i]  The CCE report documents that the lack of formal education, the lack of experience and training, employer resistance, and racial discrimination contribute to very high unemployment among returning citizens.

In addition, 31.5 percent of those under community supervision have less than a high school or GED certificate.  Those who are under the care of the D.C. Corrections have similar levels of educational achievement.  36.2 percent of men incarcerated at the DC jail have less than a high school education; 54.6 percent reported having a high school diploma or its equivalent; 3.1 percent reported have a college degree.  Similarly, 35.5 percent of women in the DC jail said they have less than a high school education; 47.9 percent reported having a high school or GED certificate, and only 4.1 percent reported having a college level education[2].  Contrast these levels of education with what one needs to secure employment in the District!

We must face up to certain realities.  Many people have hard time with school, no matter how good the school is.  These people are not necessarily incapable.  On the contrary many of them are very intelligent but their inner makeup resists the norms and practices of formal education.  Others are very smart but they learn so differently that it is hard for them to assimilate the material as it is presented.  I know this because my wife is a special education teacher.  She specializes teaching reading to children with learning disabilities.  She and her colleagues have often reported that many children with learning disabilities are very intelligent. Indeed, they become so frustrated because they are so intelligent and yet have such a hard time learning.  Many such students who are not given special help at a young age often fail at school.  They become so frustrated and angry that they drop out.  Some then engage in criminal acts in order to succeed. 

It is not realistic to expect returning citizens who have had low levels of educational achievement suddenly to become star students.  On the other hand, these returning citizens are capable, very intelligent, and given the right incentives and training could easily start their own businesses. 

This is why the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program could become an important component in a program to help returning citizens become economically independent.  The IIEP would provide a relatively short term program that would give returning citizens the skills to set up their own businesses.  Certainly one of the reasons some people are in prison is because they have difficulty taking orders and direction from others.  That is certainly another reason that they failed in school.  But given the opportunity to be their own boss, they could very likely succeed and excel. 

I have met a number of retuning citizens who have started their own businesses. They are incredibly imaginative and entrepreneurial.  They were able to succeed because someone at some point helped them.  Given a little help, they then became incredibly successful.

Finally, I have been a rabbi for almost 44 years. One of the major lessons I have learned in my life and career is that people’s imaginations need to be stimulated and challenged.  When we challenge and stimulate people, they become excited and hopeful.  Whole worlds open up before them. 

I urge this Council to fund fully the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship ProgramGive hope to those returning from prison.  Help them become independent so that they can become productive and creative citizens in our community. 

[1] Beyond Second Chances, Council for Court Excellence, December 2016, p. vi.

[2] Ibid. p. 43.