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Prison work initiatives alone aren’t enough

The Mississippi Department of Corrections recently promoted their efforts to offer job training to people incarcerated in the state through a mobile welding program. A bill passed by the legislature this year aims to expand these offerings as well by creating a pilot work initiative at the state’s largest prison.

These programs represent a broader effort underway in the state to help people incarcerated gain job skills to increase the chances they will succeed upon release. This topic has been a focus of policymakers as well, who have considered multiple pieces of legislation aimed at smoothing the reentry process.

Over 95 percent of people incarcerated in the state will be released at some point, so ensuring they have a way to work and support themselves should be a critical goal for the state’s criminal justice system.

Equipping incarcerated people with needed skills is important. But training alone is not enough to ensure success.

Upon release, formerly incarcerated people face hundreds of legal barriers that can make it harder to succeed. Many of these barriers make it harder to work. An examination of Mississippi’s occupational licensing laws found that the state requires occupational licenses for 43 entry-level to middle-income professions, and 40 of those include restrictions related to criminal convictions.

These occupational licensing restrictions can make it impossible for people with a conviction in their past to pursue the career of their choice. National interest groups like the Institute for Justice have noted how occupational licensing restrictions limit economic opportunity, and these impacts are even greater for people with lower incomes or a criminal conviction on their record.

Grading Justice is a project of Empower Mississippi that scores the state’s criminal justice system across 15 different areas. When examining the state’s laws related to an individual’s right to earn a living, Mississippi receives a grade of D. This low score is attributable to the state’s broad occupational licensing restrictions which can make it harder for people to work in a licensed field.

Mississippi could improve work prospects for people leaving prison by removing these barriers to work. Other states have adopted a Fresh Start provision, which prevents an unrelated criminal conviction from disqualifying people from obtaining a license to work.

The Mississippi legislature has considered Fresh Start provisions in recent sessions, but these bills failed to gain approval due to concerns from licensing boards. Most objections were related to the public safety impacts of allowing people with criminal convictions to obtain an occupational license. These concerns can be addressed by ensuring that convictions directly related to the occupation at hand may be considered in the licensing process.

Having a job is one of the best ways to ensure a formerly incarcerated person doesn’t return to prison. Promoting skills training within prisons is necessary, but these efforts must be coupled with reforms that lift barriers to success in the community as well.

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