D.C. Council Passes Entrepreneurship Program for Returning Citizens… But It’s Not Funded

According to the Department of Employment Services, just five years ago, the unemployment rate in Ward 7 hovered around 19 percent.  In Ward 8, it was routinely more than 20 percent.  Today, the rates are 9.5 percent and 11.3 percent respectively.   Ward 5, another area with stubbornly high unemployment has almost matched the overall unemployment rate in the District at 6.4 percent.  This is all very good news.  The bad news is that these decreases don’t seem to be reaching the District’s returning citizens.

Approximately 67,000 individuals with a prior conviction reside in the District of Columbia, that’s 10 percent of the population. (1)    According to the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) the percentage of unemployed among the offender population in the District for Black Non-Hispanic segment of the population was 64 percent in 2014.

The same scarcity of educational and training opportunities that put many at risk for criminal behavior remains unchanged during and after prison.  Seventy-seven percent of D.C. offenders who return from prison received no employment assistance while incarcerated, and only one-third of those stated that assistance was available to them post release. (2)

It is no wonder that returning citizens who want to provide for their families are challenged to do so. This remains true even for those who are more motivated than those in the workforce without criminal records.

The DC Reentry Task Force (DCRTF) is a reentry advocacy group of entrepreneurs, academia, reentry professionals and returning citizens.  We understand the need for innovation in the development of 21st century solutions to address the barriers faced by the formerly incarcerated as they seek to re-establish themselves back into society.  Which is why we’ve worked to take a lead in the discussion in supporting Bill 21-463, the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program (IIEP) Act of 2015. (3)

On June 23, 2016, the Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs committee voted unanimously to move the bill forward to a full council vote on June 28, 2016.  The downside, though, is that the bill was passed and moved forward subject to appropriation. (4)  In voicing their support at the mark-up for the legislation, Councilmember Elissa Silverman noted that she “Really thinks this is a creative approach.”  She continued by saying, “This is a bill that’ll take a first step toward looking at how we address entrepreneurship issue.”  Brandon Todd echoed her sentiments that, “This bill is yet another step towards helping this population attain jobs and self-sufficiency. “

While Councilmember Charles Allen praised the bill saying, “Returning citizen’s best chance at employment and a successful future … is by turning to the ability to being an entrepreneur to start their own business,” he also had his reservations.  “One piece that gives me anxiety,” he said, “is just that it’s not currently funded.”

At the first reading of the bill on June 28, Councilmember David Grosso echoed Allen’s concerns “On bills that we [Council] move forward in the past that are subject to appropriation it is rather rare that they ever get funded.” He further stated, “We put programs in place that will not become effective for over an entire year.”

On the other hand, Councilmember Orange said “We’re hopeful the Mayor will send down this bill as part of her budget (in FY2018) and that it would be in fact approved.”

Councilmember Grosso’s point about bills subject to appropriation not being funded is a valid one.  Dating back to 2001, the council has approved 42 legislative measures that have not funded to date, and six (6) partially funded.

It is apparent that little or no effort was put forth by the BCRA committee to get the Executive to include Bill 21-463 in her FY2017 budget.  The main objective for all returning citizens and their supporters should be to get the bill funded during the FY2018 budget cycle, and correct any other language issues that could render parts of the bill subject to legal challenges in the future. Also, to ensure that the Department of Small and Local Business Development be clarified as the lead agency, and DOES act in support of this important effort.  We hope to get amendments to change the legislation accordingly in the near future.  Passage of the bill clearly shows that the council views entrepreneurship for the returning citizens as a viable economic development strategy. The DCRTF believes the full council supports proper funding for the bill, which will effectuate real change in the lives of our returning citizens and their families.

Sources

1.  Data Needs Assessment for the Mayor’s Office of Returning Citizen Affairs
http://orca.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/orca/publication/attachments/GW%20Report%20%281%29.pdf

2.  Council for Court Excellence’s report Unlocking Employment Opportunity for Previously Incarcerated Persons in the District of Columbia
http://www.courtexcellence.org/uploads/publications/CCE_Reentry.pdf

3. Legislative Summary and Bill History
http://lims.dccouncil.us/Legislation/B21-0463?FromSearchResults=true

4. Fiscal Impact Statement http://app.cfo.dc.gov/services/fiscal_impact/pdf/spring09/FIS%20B21-463%20DC%20Incarceration%20to%20Incorporation%20Entrepreneurship%20Program%20Act%20of%202016.pdf

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