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Statement of the Hon. Nydia M. Velázquez on Prison to Proprietorship: Entrepreneurship Opportunities for the Formerly Incarcerated

Washington, October 23, 2019

Let me begin by talking about our criminal justice system.  The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.  Despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of the world’s inmates.  

People are locked up in nearly 7,000 facilities across the country – 109 federal prisons, 1,719 state prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, and 3,163 local jails.   Sadly, there are more jails than colleges and universities in the United States. That alone is telling. In our federal prison facilities today, nearly half of those imprisoned are serving time for non-violent drug offenses. And it’s expensive to put people behind bars. In fiscal year 2017, the average cost to incarcerate a federal inmate was $36,299 a year –or $99.45 a day. 

Congress took steps last year to enact legislation to reform our criminal justice system. And I am a proud supporter of the First Step Act, which gives non-violent offenders a chance to reenter society.  While this legislation is a step in the right direction, the problem is overwhelming, and solutions must come from multiple sources.

And that is why I am holding this hearing today – so we can explore innovative ways to give returning citizens the support they need to rebuild their lives after their release from prison. And to work to break the destructive cycles of recidivism which are tragically too high and are tearing apart too many communities across the country.

After paying their debt to society, former inmates return to their communities with hopes and goals of starting fresh. In 2018, more than 37,000 incarcerated individuals were released from federal prisons, and more than 97 percent of the nation’s 180,000 federal inmates will eventually be released.

The recidivism statistics are sobering, showing that if we don’t take steps now, nearly half of those released will be rearrested within 8 years.

That is because returning citizens face steep challenges when faced with the often daunting task of re-integrating into society. Many lack the education and skills needed to engage in a 21st century economy. Many struggle to find stable and affordable housing.  And put simply, many employers don’t want to hire them because of the stigma associated with serving time in prison.  At the end, this serves no one. In fact, it leads to dim employment prospects, reduced earnings potential—and yes, it increases the rate of recidivism.

So, what can we here on this Committee do to be a part of the solution to this crisis? We can start by looking at the role that entrepreneurship can play in helping formerly incarcerated individuals get back on track to pursue meaningful and healthy lives. Supporting these individuals also offers the potential to build wealth and create greater economic mobility. 

In the coming weeks, the Committee plans to introduce several bills, which will require SBA’s resource partners to provide counseling and training to individuals in prison and post-release. The in-prison services would be carried out by Women’s Business Centers and Small Business Development Centers.  Federal prisoners would be eligible for intensive, in-depth classroom instruction combined with one-on-one mentoring. SCORE would be required to provide formerly incarcerated individuals with regular one-on-one mentoring, workshops, and on-line instruction specifically tailored to their unique needs.

SBA’ resource partners – with more than one thousand centers located across the country – are perfectly suited and very well-positioned to carry out these services in federal prisons.

Entrepreneurship is the stepping stone to new opportunity for individuals who are locked out of the labor market. Unlocking opportunities for the formerly incarcerated will empower and enable them to rebuild their lives, build wealth, and promote lasting economic growth.

 

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