Meaningful employment is one of the most important factors in helping ex-offenders successfully reintegrate back into their community and prevent them from returning to crime after prison. The Utah Employment Placement Project (EPP) is a collaborative effort spearheaded by the Utah Department of Corrections (UDC) to connect these offenders to jobs. The project also resulted in the creation of the Utah Defendant/Offender Workforce Development Taskforce.
The Employment Placement Project (EPP)
In Utah there are about 16,000 individuals under community supervision at any given time. In addition, 80 percent of those who are new to community supervision are unemployed. The Employment Placement Project seeks to address these issues through the delivery of vocational rehabilitation and placement services. In an effort to create an evidence informed program, the EPP has integrated a number of best practice principles including; the use of employment as a targeted intervention, skills based training that allows for directed practice, and the provision of ongoing support services provided in the community. The model and practices used by the Utah EPP were informed by models created for and disseminated at National Institute of Corrections (NIC) trainings.
Through a 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne JAG) the UDC was able to roll out the EPP in 2009. The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), as the state adminstering agency, also provided a fiscal year 2010 Byrne JAG grant allowing the program to continue it’s funding through 2012. Serving Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties the vocational rehabilitation program was designed to work with ex-offenders on parole or probation. By providing this population with a focused and comprehensive case management based vocational program, the UDC aims to mitigate the risk factors associated with chronic unemployment while also reducing recidivism.
Ex-offenders are referred to the program both by probation officers and by individuals working with prisoners on pre-release planning. Once a referral is made, applicants are formally assessed to determine employment needs, skills, appropriateness for placement and level of service. Post assessment, the UDC in conjunction with Department of Workforce Services (DWS) conducts a short job readiness class for all interested participants. Ex-offenders who finish the training are brought into the program and begin working with a UDC employment specialist. These specialists work closely with their counterparts in partnering state and county agencies to help identify appropriate placements, trainings and employer resources. In 2011, the EPP received 1,100 referrals and accepted about 600 individuals. Of those who were accepted, approximately 70 percent, or over 400 individuals, have obtained employment, most within 30-90 days. Although this data remains preliminary, the results so far are impressive and exceed those of similar programs designed to work with the other populations like those with chronic mental illness or cognitive impairment.
Director Craig Burr of the UDC said the key to the success of EPP is collaboration. “The Utah Department of Corrections believes the management and successful reentry of offender populations, from incarceration to the community, can only be successful if we collaborate with partner agencies and individuals who have the same goal: to see the offender transform into a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen. From this premise, the Employment Placement Project was born. We now have six employment agents, and their supervisor; collaborating with employers, private non-profit agencies, as well as local, county, state and federal partners working toward this common goal.”
Defendant/Offender Workforce Development (UDOWD) Taskforce
Originally begun in 2009 as a single agency initiative the EPP quickly garnered attention from stakeholders around the state. The interest in this initiative snowballed into the development of the Utah Defendant/Offender Workforce Development (UDOWD) Taskforce. This taskforce was created in 2010 shortly after the EPP and is composed of representatives from: four federal agencies including the Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services, five state level partners including the DWS, Office of Rehabilitation,Office of Education and members from county governments, the non-profit and business sectors, and members from the faith-based community.
The success of the state level taskforce led to the creation of county level reentry working groups. These locally organized working groups are composed of relevant state and county officials as well as members of the business and faith-based communities. These county level working groups enhance the work of the UDOWD Taskforce by bringing local perspectives, ideas and partners to the table. Currently there are three county-level working groups that support the EPP and work to leverage local resources to help ex-offenders seeking employment.
By leveraging the partnerships of these county-level reentry working groups, the EPP has avoided resource silos by improving employment matches, cross training staff, reducing procedural barriers, and eliminating redundant services provided by agencies with overlapping goals. The relationship between the UDC and the DWS was even more productive because the DWS did not have the resources to provide ex-offenders with intensive vocational case management and did not have expertise with offender populations. Conversely, the UDC had no institutional knowledge on job development, existing community resources, or softer skills related to job coaching and employer-employee relationships
In addition to using the expertise of existing organizations, the Taskforce has also resulted in the allocation of $25,000 in federal NIC funds for specialized trainings aimed at improving skills related to reversing employer stigma, job development and helping the EPP adopt an evidence based framework. This collaboration has increased the proliferation and implementation of training at the state level, with many employment specialists now certified as trainers. This training has helped practitioners employ the soft skills needed for casework and job development. As important as this relational based skill building is, employment specialists have also been trained to use and promote a number of state and federal employer incentives related to job training and retention.
The UDC has worked with its partners to increase awareness of three financial and tax related training and hiring incentives available to Utah employers. These incentives include: work opportunity tax credits; bonding to cover potential losses; and HOPE grants for direct incentives to employers.
These federal and state programs have been created to help incentivize employers to take a risk on someone that they may not have taken a chance on in the past. The most popular of these programs are the HOPE grants which provide employers with a small grant for hiring an employee and a partial reimbursement to cover a portion of that individual’s compensation. In order to qualify employers must agree to provide the individual with a minimum of 35 hours of work per week that pays at least $9 per hour.
Plans are in the works to have the initiative professionally evaluated. "In order for the Utah Department of Correction's Byrne JAG funded - Offender Employment Placement Project to graduate from an evidence gathering program to an evidence based program worthy of replication, it must first be able to demonstrate efficacy by way of a rigorous and independent academic evaluation. For this reason the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice has selected this project for evaluation by the University of Utah - Criminal Justice Research Center," explained Richard Ziebarth, program manager for the CCJJ.
The study will incorporate cost benefit analysis and examine how the EPP is affecting Utah’s recidivism rates. The CCJJ has reserved a portion of its 2011 Byrne JAG funds to support this study, which will be done in conjunction with the state’s Statistical Analysis Center.