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Returning Citizens and the District’s 50/50 Dilemma

By Kimberly A. Nelson & Kevin Smith*

The DC Council voted on May 30, 2017 to approve the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Support Act of 2017. They played politics as usual, resulting in many losers in this budget. One clear loser was the returning citizens community, their families, friends and supporters who worked tirelessly over the last year to bring the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program (IIEP) Act of 2016 to the fore. Last year, the council unanimously passed the IIEP but failed to appropriate funding for the legislation. The council followed the Mayor’s lead this year in refusing to fund the IIEP. The IIEP provides education, entrepreneurial training, apprenticeship, business mentorship, and access to start-up capital for the District’s returning citizens. The IIEP became DC Law 21-159 effective October 8, 2016.

As background, fifty percent of the District’s returning citizens – people coming home from prison – are unemployed. Fifty percent are back in prison within three years. This 50/50 dilemma speaks to the need for comprehensive smart reentry approaches in the District to address the despairing connection between unemployment and recidivism. We believe entrepreneurship should be a key component of these approaches. The IIEP, as passed by the DC Council on July 12, 2016, goes further than any other piece of returning citizen legislation passed by the Council in some time.

Had the Council funded the IIEP, the program would create an ecosystem of education, business training and investment, and wraparound services, that could give the District the outcomes that similar programs throughout the country are experiencing. Programs such as Rising Tide Capital (New Jersey), Defy Ventures (New York) and Prison Entrepreneurship Program (Texas) demonstrate that the IIEP would have the potential to yield high returns on investment through low recidivism rates, job creation, reduced public assistance use, increased income and businesses with higher-than-average survival rates. Regrettably, the Mayor in her FY2018 proposed budget decided not to fund the IIEP; and the DC Council also failed to do the right thing during their budget mark-up.

The magnitude of the despair and lack of opportunity for DC’s returning citizen population is clear. Studies cite more than 60,000 individuals living in the District with a prior conviction, and each year 2,000 to 8,000 return to the District after incarceration. In the Mayor’s response to the Council’s questions on her FY2018 budget proposal, she stated that there are “850 persons released a month from the Department of Corrections today” but they estimate “365 a month” they can serve. The IIEP model is structured to meet the needs of a larger number of individuals then any existing program of its kind in the District, and can help fill in the gap of 5,820 returning citizens the Mayor leaves to fend for themselves each year.

These numbers are astounding and an embarrassment for the city. If the District is unable to provide viable and sustainable employment opportunities to our returning citizens, then why not provide them the skills and means to create their own? The IIEP would provide comprehensive training to assist returning citizens in starting a business, creating a pathway to self-sufficiency via self-employment.

During the budget vote of 5/30, there was a last-ditch effort for the IIEP and other programs that serve the city’s most vulnerable residents to get funding by Councilmember David Grosso (I-At-Large). Mr. Grosso expressed that this budget was the worst he has seen since coming to Council. More important, he said that the “Mayor’s imbalanced approach to her budget over the last three years has failed to recognize the need for more public investments over more savings.” He put forth two budget amendments. The first would have limited the District’s business franchise tax cut to businesses grossing less than $10 million annually, yielding a savings of $18.7 million. Grosso would have put those savings “directly towards the needs of our young people, our families and individuals who are homeless, returning citizens, violence prevention and the other priorities that have been shortchanged in this year’s budget.” The second amendment would have maintained the current threshold of the estate tax exemption, for a savings of $12 million. Grosso would have directed that money to public schools.

Chairman Phil Mendelson started his opening remarks by saying that through the numerous public hearings several issues “rose to the top,” one of which was to “[d]o more though the budget for returning citizens.” However, the Council seems to have not paid attention to those citizens who expressed huge support for the IIEP, a law they passed unanimously last year. When we spoke with Chairman Mendelson about the IIEP he mentioned that there were problems with the law as written, and that it was not on his priority list. For the Chairman to continue to say there are problems with the legislation without considerable action on his part to address the concerns speaks to his unwillingness to truly get behind this needed program. Additionally, how could it not be high on his priority list when doing more for returning citizens was one of the issues that “rose to the top” in hearings? He did offer that the Council allocated monies for affordable housing, to which we replied that having affordable housing is not affordable if you are unemployed. We reminded him of the IIEP’s structure that becomes less reliant on budget dollars over time. Despite our pleas, Chairman Mendelson failed to identify funding for the IIEP.

Councilmember Robert White (At-Large) told us he was doing everything he could to get the IIEP funded. To our surprise, he delivered a lengthy statement in opposition to Mr. Grosso’s proposals saying that these amendments with “less than one quarter of one percent” impact on the budget would somehow disrupt the balance of future budgets and “could be devastating.” Mr. White’s statement is the sort of heinous political back-pedaling that is devastating to the people directly impacted by the problems he then goes on to site as needing remedy. His mixed messages and conclusions are difficult to fathom, let alone his rationale.

We hope the council listened intently to Councilmember Elissa Silverman’s (At-Large) comments in support of Mr. Grosso’s proposals. Ms. Silverman stirred hearts when she stated, “…if you want to say that you want to fight income inequality here in our city, which is tremendous, I just don’t know how you can support raising the exemption for the estate tax.” She went on to say, “with this tax cut we’d be giving [the District’s] 100 wealthiest residents about $80,000 each, meanwhile our poorest residents who are trying to make ends meet on minimum wage jobs…can’t find a child care center that will take their subsidized vouchers because they’re so below market rate…can’t find affordable housing because our wait-list for housing vouchers is 40,000 people deep—that’s who will be losing out when we make this decision…we’re voting for a 100 very wealthy people and against thousands of our poorest families and children.”

We were equally bewildered by Councilmember Vincent Gray’s vote to oppose Mr. Grosso’s amendments, thereby opposing funding for programs that positively impact large numbers of residents in Ward 7. We have consistently heard him criticize the Mayor’s 2018 budget saying that its premise on values “doesn’t fit the rhetoric.” Mr. Gray continually says his values include funding education, funding police, and funding health care in the District of Columbia. We were disappointed he failed to stand up for giving returning citizens the opportunity to become self-sufficient and improve their lives. His vote went against the will of those many Ward 7 residents who are in support of funding the IIEP.

Although Councilmember Jack Evans voted against both Grosso proposals, he made some interesting points that makes us wonder why he would not speak with us about the IIEP. His office was the only one that refused. During this Council meeting, Mr. Evans stated, “[w]e spend a lot money on a lot of stuff but we don’t spend enough getting people jobs,” and “[t]he most important thing we can do is get everyone of our residents a job.” Had Councilmember Evans taken the time to read our proposed IIEP program model, sent to his office which acknowledged receipt, he would know that the IIEP does just that. We invite Mr. Evans to visit the websites of the organizations names above and review the data and University studies that speak to these results. We have often heard him say how wasteful the District’s spending is on job training programs. To that we say, the IIEP is a fresh approach to reentry whose model has proven evidence-based effectiveness.

In conclusion, Mr. Grosso could not have summed it up any better, “One thing that’s not working, one thing that we’re missing out on, is the promise . . . that once we have revitalization and once we had the tax base that could support our city, we’d invest in our neighborhoods, invest in our communities, invest in our people.” We concur. What Mr. Grosso is speaking to is the stewardship responsibility that is incumbent upon elected officials. With the District facing a 50% unemployment rate and concurrent 50% recidivism rate among returning citizens, it is no less than gross negligence for this “progressive” Council to scoff in the face of forward-thinking, proven approaches to reentry, and to scoff at violence prevention and other measures these amendments would have provided our children. This is particularly shameful as it was an opportunity for the Council to give further redress to the embarrassment of consequences caused by the mismanaged oversight of the DC Children and Youth Investment Trust.

We thank the lone soldiers who stood with Mr. Grosso on this issue, Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1) and Elissa Silverman (At-Large) who voted for both the estate and business tax amendments. Although we thank Trayon White, Sr. (Ward 8) for his support of the estate tax amendment, we ask him why, with no explanation from the dais or since, he voted against the business tax amendment?

Those council members who did not see these amendments a viable approach to addressing needs of the District’s most vulnerable were Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmembers Anita Bonds (At-Large), Robert White, Jr. (At-Large), Jack Evans (Ward 2), Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Brandon Todd (Ward 4), Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), Charles Allen (Ward 6), and Vincent Gray (Ward 7).

The IIEP could have created a sustainable path to self-sufficiency for the District’s returning citizens. Was the council’s passing the act simply a political ploy to look progressive without having to live up to it? Bowser said that the returning-citizen community not only has a seat at the table, but it’s their table as well. Was that simply lip service?

It is important to begin establishing effective coalitions with those in our community with similar interests. Those who are affected by the Council’s negligence must be willing to engage and advocate on their own behalves. There is no doubt that if the 67,000+ returning citizens in the District were mobilized, organized, and on one accord, their concerns could not be ignored. This type of movement would be able to effectuate real change in our government and its budget priorities. When growing up we remember hearing the older folks say, “closed mouths don’t get fed.” We call on those of like mind to collaborate with us, come to the table to lend voice about what is needed, and hold our lawmakers accountable.

*Kimberly A. Nelson is the principal of Point of Discovery Coaching and Consulting LLC. She presently works with Changing Perceptions, a DC community-based agency serving returning citizens. Kevin Smith is a Legislative Technology Specialist in the Office of the Secretary of the District of Columbia Council; the views expressed are his exclusively.