09/02/2008

A Look at Restorative Justice: What Are We Going To Do With All These Ex-Offenders?

By Stephen Sisco

Over the course of the last several years the federal government, in conjunction with state and local agencies, has come full circle with reentry efforts. To reduce recidivism rates in this country, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) has developed an Offender Workforce Development (OWD) program based on some of the same theories as restorative justice. The administrative guide for this program indicates that 12-person teams are trained on three essential elements, 1) collaboration between community and government organizations, 2) competency-based skills for career development, and 3) the ability to expand by training others on career development skills. These teams are devised of personnel from the Bureau of Prisons, US Probation, Employment Security Commission, local community leaders and from other employment agencies. This training is comprised of several key components:

  • Career Development Theory and Application
  • Understanding and Using Facilitation Skills
  • The Role of Assessment in Career Planning and Job Placement
  • Instruction and Group Facilitation
  • Designing and Implementing Training and Work Development Services
  • Barriers to Employment
  • Ethics and the Career Development Facilitator
  • Transition Interventions for the Offender Population
  • Job Seeking and Employability Skills
  • Job Retention
  • The Role of Information and Computers in Career Planning.

Each one of these components is vital for the specialist to understand and convey to the offender. Morris Thigpen, the Director of NIC concurs with this stating:

There is compelling evidence that unemployment contributes to an increased rate of parole revocation, which is a major risk factor for recidivism. Individuals released from correctional facilities often find that the search for employment is hindered by barriers such as lack of educational credentials, limited work history, poor planning skills, and employers' prejudice toward hiring ex-offenders...those who assist them in their search for employment must possess a comprehensive set of workforce development skills. Furthermore, these professional skills must be used in the context of a partnership involving criminal justice agencies and community-based organizations. No single agency can meet all the needs of offenders returning to their communities. (Page v)

The OWD program, along with partnerships with other state and local agencies, will empower counselors to better assist offenders with work skills development. Hopefully, this partnership will identify and remove some of the barriers that prevent ex-offenders from maintaining long-term employment.

One of the many challenges for ex-offenders is motivating employers to hire them. There is often a label or stigma attached to an ex-offender that turns employers away. This is a difficult barrier to overcome because employers are often not willing to take chances on hiring someone who may be un-trustworthy. More often than not, "ex-offender" is a label they carry throughout their work history.

One of the advantages of the partnerships created within the OWD program is collaboration with outside stakeholders. The partnerships invite business leaders, faith-based organizations, elected officials, and other people from the community to work together in reducing some of the stigma attached to ex-offenders. Furthermore, it gives them a chance to share information on training needs such as social skills and interviewing techniques.

Recently, the Bureau of Prisons instituted the Inmate Skills Development (ISD) Branch. The ISD offers inmates the opportunity to learn valuable reentry skills to assist them in becoming productive citizens. Although the federal government has continued to provide outstanding programs for reentry, this branch focuses on teaching nine specific skills:

Daily Living

Mental Health

Cognitive

Vocational/Career

Wellness

Leisure Time

Interpersonal

Character

Academic

The majority of these skills are taught through offender management. The OWD program focuses specifically on the Vocational/Career portion.

Considering the current philosophy of the criminal justice system overall, one could argue that this is a return to the rehabilitation efforts of the 1970s. However, the OWD and ISD are fresh ideas toward restorative justice. The ultimate goal is to keep offenders from returning to prison. Non-profit and faith-based organizations have been doing this for years and their work is finally being recognized. It's important for employers, business leaders, and elected officials to buy into these programs. The "lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key" mentality no longer works; skill-based training is the future. These programs, with help from the criminal justice system and local community can help end the cycle of recidivism.

References

National Institute of Corrections. (2007). Administrative Guide: Offender Workforce Development Specialist Partnership Training Program. (NIC Accession No. 022173). Washington, DC: U.S.

Stephen Sisco, MA, is a Offender Workforce Development Specialist with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He graduated in May 2008 with a Master's degree in Conflict Resolution from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Recently, Stephen completed the 180-hour Offender Workforce Development Specialist Training offered through the National Institute of Corrections. This training along with the continuing education has lead Stephen to begin work on a Ph.D. in Higher Education. In addition, he is now a certified Global Career Development Facilitator and a new member of the NCDA. He can be reached at ssisco@bop.gov


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