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From Vicious Circle to Virtual Cycle—How Education Can Transform Transformational Justice

Those with convictions can have a hard time finding employment, and higher education has the opportunity to change that. By creating accessible learning pathways, institutions can have a major impact on the lives of both offenders and victims.

As a membership organization that brokers collaboration among many diverse parties, CAEL believes the road to success is best travelled in groups. Systemic impact simply doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Look no further than the trends connecting workforce, postsecondary, equity and broader economic issues.

Adult learners are at the center of many, if not most, of these intersections. However, as any CAEL member will attest, despite the critical importance of adult learners to educational and workforce success, they are too often underserved. But there is a segment of adult learners who aren’t just overlooked but largely forgotten: justice-involved individuals.

There are more of them than you may think. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 77 million Americans have a criminal record, while another 2 million are currently in jail. Discrimination continues to contribute to the profound disparities among them. For example, Black men and Hispanic men are respectively about 500% and 100% more likely to be imprisoned than White men[1].

A criminal record is a formidable and persistent barrier to employment. Some studies suggest an unemployment rate as high as 60% for formerly incarcerated workers[2]. More conservative estimates indicate an unemployment rate approaching 30%. That’s still higher than the general unemployment rate during the depths of the Great Depression[3].

The stigma of a criminal record lingers long after a sentence is served, setting a self-fulfilling circuit of marginalization into motion. As the numbers above indicate, a criminal record reduces employability.[4] On the other hand, employment reduces recidivism (and crime in general).[5] It’s like the old catch-22 that you can’t get a job without experience nor experience without a job. Though in this case, the conundrum is how to transcend a negative experience and overcome the shadow of a criminal conviction.

How can we break this pattern in a way that is inclusive and respectful of everyone impacted, from offenders to victims to the communities they live in? Transformational justice programs offer a promising approach. Broward College, a CAEL institutional member, provides an innovative example of how something near and dear to the CAEL community can be marshalled into the cause. The college is using proactive education-employment pathways that justice-involved learners can navigate to earn credentials and move past convictions.

Broward College partners with the Broward County State Attorney’s Office and Law Office of the Public Defender to offer the Court to College Diversion program. Under it, eligible offenders can enroll in their choice of three different programs tailored to occupations within the Industry, Manufacturing, Construction, and Transportation career pathway.

Labor market data helped identify tracks that support the employment prospects of participants, who include not only offenders but victims associated with their cases. Victims not only have the choice of whether offenders may participate in the Court to College Diversion program, but they can also choose to participate themselves. Program benefits include grant-provided funding for tuition, books and certification exams. The program covers first-time nonviolent offenders facing charges no greater than a third-degree felony. After they complete all courses, their charges are dismissed, and they receive a technical certificate.

The transformational justice approach is centered on a collaborative approach. That resonates with CAEL’s mission, especially when we remind ourselves that justice-involved is one of the many identities that comprise adult learners. The root-cause approach of transformational justice also aligns with our theory of change philosophy: “beginning with the end in mind.” By including offenders and victims, transformational justice can balance justice and compassion to emphasize constructive solutions rather than prescriptive punishment. Reconciliation between offenders and their communities reduces risk factors for crime. In the Broward College example, tangible pathways to education and employment within growth industries provide access to established vehicles of equitable economic mobility.

From a more practical perspective, labor shortages may be prompting some companies to take a first look at so-called second-chance hiring. In 2021, a Society for Human Resource Management survey indicated that just over half of HR professionals would consider candidates with criminal records, up from 37% in 2018[6]. (Interestingly, that same 2021 survey showed that 85% of HR professionals didn’t think criminal records necessarily meant poorer job performance.)

Transformational justice programs are not appropriate or feasible for all cases. Still, it’s clear they have the potential to make a positive impact, both ethically and economically, that reverberates throughout the CAEL community of practice. Perhaps what is most harmonious can be found in a very different sense of the word conviction. Transformational justice is based on the belief that everyone has the capacity to change. It’s hard not to see our own mission reflected in that belief. After all, what is the belief in lifelong learning if not a conviction that we all have the capacity to change?