An option for state jail felony offenders

By Rachel Hampton, LMSW
Director of Workforce Advancement at Goodwill of Central Texas in Austin

“Hi, nice to meet you. What do you do?”

            It’s the very first question we ask everyone that we meet—“What do you do?” In so many ways, our jobs are our identity. They signify who we are to those we meet, they give us a sense of purpose, and they provide independence and self-sufficiency.

            But for men and women re-entering the community from jail or prison, finding steady, stable employment is a significant challenge.[1] These challenges include lack of education or work history, obsolete skill sets, stigma of criminal backgrounds, lack of clarity around navigating the workforce space, missing soft skills, and more. These difficulties can, in turn, increase the likelihood that people will reoffend and return to confinement.

            However, when incarcerated individuals complete educational or vocational training, their likelihood of returning to prison drops significantly.[2] Formerly incarcerated people who are employed are three times less likely to commit another crime than their unemployed counterparts.[3] Successful reintegration efforts and incentives to choose rehabilitative options are key to decreasing recidivism. Providing educational, employment, and training opportunities for defendants can improve public safety, save taxpayers money, and increase participation in the workforce.

A NEW Choice

In recognition of these benefits, the 85th Texas Legislature passed House Bill 3130 in 2017, which created a pilot program to provide educational and vocational training to certain nonviolent state jail felony offenders placed on community supervision following a brief stint in a state jail facility rather than serving extensive sentences. (The Code of Criminal Procedure was amended to include this option and can be found in Art. 42A.562.) This bill was funded in the most recent 86th Legislative Session, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) began a competitive selection process to award this contract.

            Goodwill Central Texas was awarded the first and only (for now—but see below) contract to operate this program in Texas. Goodwill’s program, NEW (Navigating Education and Work) Choices, is operational in Travis and Williamson Counties. The purpose of NEW Choices is to rehabilitate state jail felony defendants through tailored services. They include the following:
            •          immediate paid employment at Goodwill,
            •          an individualized service and discharge plan,
            •          wraparound case management support,
            •          mental health support (as needed),
            •          training in life skills and career advancement soft skills, such as resume help and mock interviews; lessons in financial wellness, communication, attitude, motivation, and time management; learning to be a team player, dependability, life stability, presentation, and family responsibilities (as needed),
            •          access to education (GED or high school diploma),
            •          access to occupational skills training, such as earning a commercial driver’s license or training to become a computer tech, nurse’s aide, phlebotomist, HVAC repair person, construction worker, or apartment maintenance worker, and
            •          placement into competitive employment at the end of the program, with the goal of employment at a livable wage.

            NEW Choices is designed to serve defendants sentenced on or after September 1, 2019, for non-Title 5 state jail felonies. Community supervision is a requirement of NEW Choices, and the length of time on the program is at the judge’s discretion, but it lasts at least 90 to 180 days.

            We at Goodwill wanted to get the word out to those in the criminal justice system about this sentencing option. To those prosecutors in our service area (Travis and Williamson Counties), please talk to local judges and community supervision offices about it if you think it might be suitable for qualifying defendants. Prosecutors in other counties have options as well: TDCJ just released another Request for Proposals for this very program (Solicitation 696-TC-20-P017), which was due February 20, 2020. If this program interests you, talk with your judges and to officials at local nonprofits who may be interested in competing for future such contracts—these programs need judicial support to get off the ground.

Conclusion

NEW Choices is just the first of—we hope—many additional opportunities for providing rehabilitative services to defendants that offer them an incentive to choose community supervision. This alternative option could increase public safety, reduce recidivism, and expand the Texas workforce.

            If you have questions about NEW Choices, please contact the author at Rachel.Hampton @goodwillcentraltexas.org.

Endnotes

[1]  Stephen J. Tripodi, Johhny S. Kim, and Kimberly Bender, “Is Employment Associated with Reduced Recidivism? The Complex Relationship between Employment and Crime,” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 54(5), 2020, 706-720.

[2]  Hull, Forrester, Brown, Job, and McCullen, “Analysis of recidivism rates for participants of the academic, vocational, and transition education programs offered by the Virginia department of correctional education,” Journal of Correctional Education, 51, 2000, 256-261.

[3]  Brazell, Crayton, Mujamal, Soloman, and Lindahl, “From the classroom to the community: Exploring the role of education during incarceration and re-entry,” The Urban Institute, 2009.