This is a shortened version of VACRO CEO Marius Smith’s presentation to Jobs Australia’s Conversations Shaping Tomorrow webinar on 22 October 2020.

The problem facing people leaving prison

A job provides stability and hope. When a person with a criminal background secures a job, they can afford a place to live, they can provide for their children, and they can deal with other issues they might face, including mental health conditions, addiction, and lack of community connection. And when such a person has the opportunity to lead a better life, their likelihood of reoffending reduces.

In the post-COVID-19 era, it will be even more important to ensure that prisoners are not further marginalised. Research shows that being unemployed for a year nearly halves a person’s chances of ever working again, illustrating the urgency of assisting people who are about to emerge from prison into a difficult labour market. But to create the kind of job opportunities we need for people leaving prison, there are several problems to be tackled.

First, the scale of the need

More than 1000 people leave Victoria’s prisons each month—the vast majority without a job to go to. Only 22 per cent of prison leavers will secure a job.

These people are leaving not just to Melbourne, but all over the state. As many as 40 per cent of people leaving prison are going to regional and rural Victoria.

Second, the need for through-care

The problem for all elements of the prison system is to design programs that use through-care. Whether it be assistance with addiction, mental health, family violence or a job, that assistance needs to begin in the prison and follow the person into the community.

When it comes to employment, people in prison often have the opportunity to work in prison industries and to enrol in education or a trade. They may sometimes have access to other supporting programs, such as CV writing and financial planning. But there are currently very few opportunities for people to connect with any programs on the outside.

Third, the need to address complex co-morbidities and other issues

People leaving prison are often dealing with a complex set of interlocking issues. For example, more than half of people leaving prison leave into homelessness or housing insecurity. They may be battling with severe mental health conditions, or have alcohol or other drug addictions. Many have an intellectual disability, acquired brain injury or other cognitive impairment. They may be estranged from their families or have weak connections to the community.

The complex needs of some people leaving prison will rule them out of the job market, either temporarily or permanently. But we know from our experience that many people with co-morbidities can be assisted into work. They just need assistance that’s very different from the type provided to most job-seekers.

Fourth, discrimination

Only 22 per cent of people leaving prison will get jobs. Yet 46 per cent of people reported having a job immediately before entering prison, according to one influential study. In other words, prison makes employment even harder. One reason for that is discrimination.

In recent years, we have seen a huge rise in the number of organisations conducting background criminal checks before employing people. Victoria lacks a prohibition on discriminating against someone on the basis of an irrelevant criminal conviction. So, if I have a 10-year-old conviction for drug possession, and all the requisite skills and experience, you can still refuse to hire me for a retail job. And this is not just a hypothetical. We know that even high-functioning people who leave prison, who get the relevant support structures in place, who might even have university degrees and extensive work histories, struggle to find work where that dreaded criminal background check is required. They know the outcome in advance.

But what are the opportunities?

First, many people leaving prison are employment-ready

Many of the 1000 people leaving prison in Victoria each month have the education, discipline and skill needed to hold down a job. For example, many:

  1. Have completed or are completing education, including university and TAFE courses and construction tickets and licences.
  2. Have been working in prison industry and other jobs while in prison.
  3. Have been residing in structured environments which require them to adhere to strict time schedules, maintain clean and safe environments and take instructions.
  4. Are healthy. They have been eating regular meals, they have regular sleeping patterns, and they are physically fit.
Second, they are reliable

It might sound counterintuitive, but a UK study found that 81 per cent of businesses that employ people from prison say their new employees have helped their business.

This is not as surprising as it may sound.

When we think of prison, we think of the people who’ve been on the front page of the paper. But the majority of people with a criminal record have one-off offences or offences that are not relevant to a particular role. Often, their circumstances have changed since the offending took place, and they seem themselves in a different light.

Evidence shows that people leaving prison place a high value on having a job as a key part of their journey away from offending behaviours and towards a good life as an individual, family member, and member of the community. As a result, this cohort often has higher levels of loyalty and retention with businesses who take the risk.

Third, this is a matter of corporate social responsibility

For businesses who take their social obligations seriously, giving prison leavers a second chance is about more than just improving the life of one person: the effects ripple out to society as a whole.

Importantly, for companies looking to go down this road now, the landscape is beginning to shift. There is evidence that the law and order push of recent decades has crested and is starting to recede. At the last Victorian election, law and order was a losing issue. The state government has committed to legislating a spent convictions regime, has expunged historical records for crimes that targeted LGBTQ people, and has committed to a similar scheme for Aboriginal people. The Federal Government has signed up to a UN regime called OPCAT that will curtail solitary confinement, a grassroots movement is pushing all governments to raise the age of criminal responsibility, and there is a growing realisation that we can’t imprison our way out of this mess. Organisations interested in working with people caught in the criminal justice system can have confidence that this is something that is becoming more important to our society in a way it wasn’t five to 10 years ago.

Fourth, there are even legal reasons

Assisting people leaving the criminal justice system into jobs can be a legal requirement in some cases. Under the Victorian Government’s Social Procurement Framework, businesses that contract with the Victorian Government must abide by the framework, which sets out a number of social and sustainable procurement goals, including employing people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Relevantly for us, people from disadvantaged backgrounds can include people leaving the criminal justice system. The tender documents for Victoria’s largest ever transport project, the North East Link, required bidders to include specific targets for people caught in the criminal justice system.

Giving opportunities to this group is therefore becoming a prerequisite to doing business with the Victorian Government. And although Victoria’s framework is the most extensive and prescriptive, most Australian governments now have some form of a social procurement policy in place, and we expect this trend to grow.

What is the solution?

There are real opportunities for businesses to encourage applications from people leaving the criminal justice system, and to support those people into work. And there’s lots of advice out there to help organisations to do it in a safe and supportive way.

However, to truly scale up opportunities for this group of people, there needs to be more organised support. We know from decades of experience that transitioning from prison into employment is not as simple as finding a vacancy for someone to fill. They need to develop new skills, improve their confidence and learn to believe in themselves, often for the first time.

Over the last 12 months VACRO has spoken to government agencies, non-profits and corporations about how to meet the scale of this challenge. We have identified the three key elements for a successful program:

  1. Participants need a formal, state-wide pre-release employment preparation program running for 6-12 month pre-release to develop their employability skills, coordinate their education and training, and tailor an employment program.
  2. There needs to be a connection from the prison to employers in the community. You need a job on the outside, someone inside who is suitable for that job, and you need to support the employer to properly host someone newly released from prison.
  3. As re-entering the community can be traumatic, participants need someone to walk along side them, helping them to solve their problems and identify opportunities, to enable them to hold down employment.

 This model of pre-release assistance, job management and intensive post-release case management is not the norm. It’s time consuming and expensive, so it’s not an option that’s been taken up en masse in the past.

However, this approach has obvious economic and social benefits that clearly outweigh the costs. In an environment where we are likely to see even more economic suffering, it’s also essential that we provide this level of support to a group of people who for the most part are incredibly disadvantaged. Prison is often the endpoint for people whose problems have not been addressed in the community. So our choice is between releasing people into the same circumstances that they left behind while hoping for a different result, and supporting them to address their problems so that they are truly given a second chance. And one key to that second chance for many people is a job.