Two Members of Congress Think Entrepreneurship Can Keep People Out of Prison

Recidivism, the tendency of convicted criminals to commit more crimes after getting out of prison, is a huge issue in America. According to a 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Justice, 83 percent of state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested again within nine years.

U.S. Congresswomen Nydia Velázquez (D., N.Y.), Chairwoman of the U.S. House Small Business Committee, and U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D., N.Y.) are proposing a solution: entrepreneurship.

At a press conference at New York’s City Hall in November, Velázquez and Jeffries announced federal legislation aimed at reducing recidivism rates throughout the country by launching entrepreneurial training initiatives for those currently and formerly incarcerated.

“Entrepreneurship is a great avenue for success. A great idea is much more likely to be made into a reality with proper community support, mentorship, and resources,” Velázquez said at a press conference, timed to the bills’ introduction. She cited a 2013 RAND Corporation report, which found that individuals who participated in any type of educational program in prison were 43 percent less likely to return to prison after release.

The legislation offered by Velázquez and Jeffries comprises two bills: The Prison to Proprietorship Act, and the Prison to Proprietorship for Formerly Incarcerated Act. Both would provide counseling in the form of mentoring sessions, workshops, and instructional videos designed to help prisoners start a small business. The resources would be administered through local Small Business Development Centers, Women’s Business Centers, and the Service Corps of Retired Executives–organizations which offer management assistance to small business owners in every state.

In an age where you can find someone’s mugshot with one Google search, a criminal record typically disqualifies most job candidates. This can make it nearly impossible for former prisoners to find a source of legal income when they leave prison, leading many to return to criminal pursuits.

As a result, entrepreneurship has long been a popular avenue for ex-convicts: “For former prisoners, there’s still going to be some barriers around starting a business, but those aren’t going to be as great as when they’re applying for a job,” says Brian Hamilton, the founder of entrepreneurship education non-profit Inmates to Entrepreneurs.

According to Hamilton, improved training encourages more former prisoners to start up. That’s why Inmates to Entrepreneurs is one of many nonprofits that’s been providing entrepreneurial training to inmates long before these bills were introduced. A similar organization, Defy Ventures, has signed on to support the bills and hopes to help implement the proposed training programs if the bills become law.

“For individuals who have entrepreneurial talent, these programs will be a pathway to economic security,” Defy Ventures CEO Andrew Glazier says. “The ability to make legal money, either in a career or by running a business, is a fundamental driver of staying out of prison.”

Will these programs be a good use of taxpayer’s money? Although the exact budget has yet to be determined, Glazier says that, because of the high cost of keeping prisoners in jail, it’s a no brainer. “These programs usually cost from $1,000 to $2,500 per person. To keep a single individual incarcerated in California costs at least $81,000 per year per person. It’s pretty easy math.”

Velázquez echoes the sentiment, arguing that the bills will pay for themselves if they can keep people out of prison. “With approximately 180,000 individuals locked up in federal prisons, which costs nearly $100 per-day-per-inmate, it makes fiscal sense to give these folks the tools they need to build a meaningful life,” Velázquez says.

Both bills have bipartisan support; Velázquez’s bill is co-sponsored by Steve Chabot (R., OH) and Jeffries’ by Tim Burchett (R., TN). A spokesperson for Velázquez notes that the timeline for next steps has yet to be determined, but the U.S. House Small Business Committee has agreed to report both bills favorably to Congress, with no amendments and no opposition. This means that the bills have a good chance of heading to the House floor for a vote, then heading to the Senate before landing on the president’s desk for signature.