LOS ANGELES — Hundreds of Californians released from prisons could receive direct cash payments of $2,400 — along with counseling, job search assistance and other support — under a first-in-the-nation program aimed at easing the transition out of incarceration and reducing recidivism.
Recipients will get the money over a series of payments after meeting certain milestones such as showing progress in finding places to live and work, according to the Center for Employment Opportunities, which runs the program announced this week.
The goal is to give people a chance “to cover their most essential needs” like bus fare and food during the crucial early days after exiting incarceration, said Samuel Schaeffer, CEO of the national nonprofit that helps those leaving lockups find jobs and achieve financial security.
“The first three to six months are the riskiest, when many people end up back in prison,” Schaeffer said. “We want to take advantage of this moment to immediately connect people with services, with financial support, to avoid recidivism.”
Funding and Support
The governor’s Workforce Development Board, devoted to improving the state’s labor pool, is providing a $6.9 million grant to boost community-based organizations and expand so-called re-entry services for the formerly incarcerated.
About $2 million of that will go directly to ex-inmates in the form of cash payments totaling about $2,400 each. The center said the money will be paid incrementally upon reaching milestones including: engaging in employment interview preparation meetings with a jobs coach; making progress toward earning an industry credential or certificate; and creating a budget and opening a bank account.
Schaeffer said the new program is a “game changer” and the first of its kind in the nation, one he hopes other states will copy.
He said his group distributes money and coordinates services along with local groups that provide services including career training and mental health counseling. The program got a sort of test run at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Center for Employment Opportunities was tasked with distributing direct payments to about 10,000 people struggling with financial difficulties.
Schaeffer said to promote equitable access to the funds, the center is recommending its partners impose limited eligibility criteria for receiving payments. Aside from meeting the agreed-upon milestones, there are no rules for how the money can be spent.
Challenges and Concerns
Advocates say people returning from incarceration often struggle to find places to live and work as they try to reintegrate back into their communities. Around 60% of formerly incarcerated individuals remain unemployed within the first year of being home, the center estimates.
Assemblyman Tom Lackey, a Republican from Palmdale who often focuses on justice system issues, said he applauds any attempt to reduce recidivism. But he worries this new program lacks a way to track progress and make sure taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.
“If we are going to issue stipends without parameters for accountability I worry about the return on our investment as it relates to outcomes and community safety,” Lackey said in a statement.
Schaeffer said he expects his organization will be flexible as the program rolls out, “to keep on refining it and keep on getting smarter on how to use it” and make sure every dollar counts.
“I wish this partnership had existed while I was in re-entry,” said Carmen Garcia, who was formerly incarcerated himself and is now director of the Root & Rebound, a nonprofit offering legal advocacy for people leaving prison.
He said the expanded program will allow groups like his to “offer these expanded services to more people who are working to rebuild their lives after incarceration.”