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Remarks by Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor Workforce Development & Employment Strategies for the Formerly Incarcerated

Location: Washington, DC

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the Great Hall here at the Department of Labor.

I want to pay special thanks to Attorney General Holder for being here and for his outstanding leadership as head of the Federal Interagency Re-Entry Council. I also want to thank Chairwoman Berrien for joining us and for the EEOC's critical work on the civil rights and public policy dimensions of this issue. Finally, I want to thank the many leaders from academia, from the faith-based community, and from our DOL programs who've joined us for today's roundtable.

We are here today to discuss federal strategies to transform tax takers into tax payers. When someone serves time in our penal system, they shouldn't face a lifetime sentence of unemployment when they are released. Those who want to make amends must be given the opportunity to make an honest living.

Every year, more than 700,000 people in America are released from state and federal prisons, and another 9 million cycle through local jails. Unfortunately, more than two-thirds of state prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release.

In the last 20 years, prison spending has grown faster than almost any other state budget item. We currently spend $68 billion on corrections at the local, state and federal level.

One in 99 American adults is currently incarcerated. This marks the highest rate of imprisonment in our nation's history. For communities of color, the rates are even higher. One in every 15 African-American adults is incarcerated. And one in every 36 Hispanic male adults is incarcerated. If people cannot secure jobs when they are released from incarceration, it increases the chances they will return to a life of crime.

One of the Re-Entry Council's strategies to address this problem is to make sure that employers have the facts. Some employers believe they have no economic incentives to hire workers who've been incarcerated. Actually, employers can reduce their federal tax liability by up to 40 percent of the wages they pay to any new worker who has a prior felony conviction. That's a tax credit of up to $6,000.

Also, the Labor Department offers free federal bonding insurance to employers who hire these workers. These bonds offer 100 percent coverage against any loss due to theft for the first six months of employment. Our bonding program has helped place 42,000 job applicants and has had a 99 percent success rate. So there are clear economic advantages for companies to reintegrate these workers into their labor force.

The Department of Labor has three programs focused on removing employment barriers for people who have been incarcerated. One deals with juveniles, one focuses on adults, and one on military veterans.

About 100,000 juveniles are released from custody each year. Many return to struggling families and disadvantaged neighborhoods. More than half of these youth have not completed the eighth grade -- and two in three do not return to school upon their release.

Today, it is my pleasure to announce the first-ever grant awards under our new Civic Justice Corps. We are awarding 15 grants totaling $20 million to organizations working with young people who have served in the juvenile justice system. These grants will give young adults -- from 18 to 24 years old -- service opportunities and skills training that will help them go back to school and pursue career pathways.

We have also initiated a summer jobs initiative to encourage employers across the country to provide part-time or summer employment to our youth. This program can also play a key role in keeping young people on the right track.

Finally, in San Francisco, we're piloting a program called "Think Before You Ink." As the program's name indicates, many young people don't think about the long-term impact that tattoos can have on their employability. They learn the hard way as they leave the youth culture and look for a job. We hope to work with medical schools and dermatologists to replicate this pilot project on a national scale.

Now, adults who have been incarcerated usually face a different set of employment challenges once they are released. Two out of three adults had a job before they went to jail, but incarceration can reduce their earning potential by 40 percent when they get out.

We're working closely with non-profit, faith-based organizations to help this population reintegrate into the workforce. According to national statistics, more than 44 percent of incarcerated adults will reoffend when they get out of prison. But for participants in our Rexo program, that number has been reduced to 14 percent. We are proud of this program's success. And we owe much of it to the tireless work of our faith-based grantees. They provide a family support network and refuse to see their clients fail, regardless of the obstacles in front of them.

Today, you will here from one of our many success stories -- a man named Marlon Green. When Marlon got out of prison last September, he was connected with our grantee out of Baltimore called Jericho. Jericho is a part of the Episcopal Services of Maryland. Jericho helps clients set up an email account and write a resume, and they offer training on job search strategies, financial literacy, and appropriate workplace dress and behavior. They also mentor their clients to help them land a first job, and then pursue a career.

Marlon had a great outlook upon his release and showed tremendous drive in achieving his career goal of becoming a commercial licensed driver. Today, less than a year later, Marlon is a licensed truck driver living with his wife. Marlon, thanks for being here. We look forward to hearing about your experiences.

Our final program is focused on helping find jobs for military veterans who've been incarcerated. More than 200,000 veterans are incarcerated in the nation's prisons and jails. This is a population with very special needs. Some are returning from war zones in Iraq or Afghanistan. Our combat veterans must go from the operational stress of a war zone right back into the civilian world. Once home, they encounter family stress, financial stress and job stress. A major goal of our program is to work with service members who may be at risk of becoming homeless.

Today, we will hear from Jimmie Chatmon, who participated in a program run by our Maryland grantee called the Way Station. Jimmy is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm and a winner of the Kuwaiti Liberation Medal and the Southeast Asia Service Ribbon. Today, he is working at National Tire & Battery. I think it says a lot about the success of our program that Jimmy's boss came here today to support him. We are grateful for National Tire & Battery's participation in our program -- and the company's commitment to giving our veterans a second chance.

I understand we also have in the audience today Jimmy's case manager, Tadarryl Jones, and Way Station employment specialist Clint Larkins. Way Station has placed 30 formerly incarcerated veterans in jobs in the last quarter alone. Let's give them all a round of applause.

With that, I will conclude my opening remarks and offer my thanks to everyone for being here today -- as we shine a light on this important issue. I look forward to hearing from our panel.

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