Kevin Smith works for the D.C. Council. Kimberly A. Nelson is a life coach and nonprofit consultant. They are working with the DC Reentry Task Force to fund the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program.
Fifty percent of the District’s returning citizens — people who have been released from prison — are unemployed. Fifty percent are back in prison within three years. Disgracefully, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council failed to support a new program for returning citizens in the District’s fiscal year 2018 budget.
The Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program (IIEP) Act of 2016 is one way the District could constructively address this important issue. Though the IIEP Act, which unanimously passed the council, became law in October, neither Bowser, in her proposed budget, nor the council, which recently passed its fiscal 2018 budget, saw fit to fund it.
The IIEP provides for comprehensive smart reentry programming centered on entrepreneurship. The program — once funded — would create an ecosystem of education, business training, investment and wraparound services that could give the District better outcomes.
Programs such as Rising Tide Capital (New Jersey), Defy Ventures (New York) and Prison Entrepreneurship Program (Texas) demonstrate that the IIEP would have the potential to yield high returns on investment through low recidivism rates, job creation, reduced use of public assistance, increased income and businesses with higher-than-average survival rates.
The magnitude of the despair and lack of opportunity for D.C.’s returning-citizen population is clear. Studies cite more than 60,000 individuals living in the District with a prior conviction, and each year 2,000 to 8,000 return to the District after incarceration. The mayor said her administration can serve only 365 a month.
These numbers are astounding. If the District is unable to provide viable and sustainable employment opportunities to our returning citizens, then why not provide them the skills and means to create their own? The IIEP would provide comprehensive training to assist returning citizens in starting a business, creating a pathway to self-sufficiency via self-employment.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) put forth two budget amendments. The first would have limited the District’s business franchise tax cut to businesses grossing less than $10 million annually, yielding a savings of $18.7 million. Grosso would have put those savings “directly towards the needs of our young people, our families and individuals who are homeless, returning citizens, violence prevention and the other priorities that have been shortchanged in this year’s budget.” The second amendment would have maintained the current threshold of the estate-tax exemption, for a savings of $12 million. Grosso would have directed that money to public schools.
Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), despite stating in opening remarks a need to “do more through the budget for returning citizens,” failed to identify funding for the IIEP. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) led us to believe he was in support of funding the IIEP, but backpedaled. Council member Vincent C. Gray’s (D-Ward 7) vote went against the will of those Ward 7 residents who support funding the IIEP.
The IIEP could have created a sustainable path to self-sufficiency for the District’s returning citizens. Was the council’s passing the act simply a political ploy to look progressive without having to live up to it? Bowser said that the returning-citizen community not only has a seat at the table, but it’s their table as well. Was that simply lip service?
If the District’s 67,000-plus returning citizens were mobilized and organized, their concerns could not be ignored. The IIEP Act will be subject to repeal if not funded in the next budget cycle. We call on those of like mind to collaborate with us and hold our lawmakers accountable.