Georgia Department of Labor commissioner launches re-entry and jobs program

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On Wednesday afternoon, Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) Commissioner Bruce Thompson held a press conference at the Chatham County Detention Center to unveil a program designed to address the cycle of incarceration and support successful reintegration into society through employment opportunities.

The Last Mile Program,” which will support all former Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) prisoners, is scheduled to start Dec. 1. The program does not have an existing budget but will be funded by an existing tax credit, Thompson added.

“Everyone is struggling with a workforce but yet, we’ve really never tackled the opportunities for those that are leaving incarceration and coming back into the public sector. We believe this is the opportunity to do this,” said Thompson.

More: ‘God, it was rough, having doors continue to shut’: Formerly incarcerated struggle with housing in Savannah

More: When is the debt paid? Formerly incarcerated individuals face challenges with re-entry

‘Workforce demands are huge’ in Chatham County

Thompson held the press conference at CCDC because, in Chatham County, “the workforce demands are huge,” Thompson said, citing the Hyundai Plant, Gulfstream, the Georgia Ports and the jail itself. Thompson noted that he hasn’t talked specifically to the Hyundai Plant, but Thompson did say “hundreds and hundreds of employers” have already signed on, including the Associated General Contractors of America.

“Yes, there are needs everywhere in the state,” said Thompson. “But one of the things that you have, as you have a unique opportunity, because you’re growing so fast, is that we have to make sure that as the Department of Labor, we’re trying to provide some solutions so that you’re not just trading employees. We have to bring the workforce.”

According to a GDOL press release, the Last Mile Program features “thorough assessments to identify participants’ talents, interests and readiness to re-enter the workforce.” The program will provide those individuals re-entering society with skills, such as

  • resume building
  • interviewing, and
  • connecting with potential employers

GDOL will monitor the program’s efficacy by tracking job placements and individuals’ employment status through key milestones, such as job retention at six months to a year. Recidivism rates also will be monitored.

Thompson noted that the initiative is personal for him because he had a brother who cycled “in and out of jail” and later committed suicide. “Once he was released after several times of being incarcerated, he never really felt like he ever fit in society,” Thompson said.

More: Mayor’s reintegration conference seeks options for people re-entering society after prison

Georgia’s recidivism rate high

The Bureau of Justice Assistance puts Georgia’s recidivism rate at 26%, but the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reforms puts it closer to 30%, which means one third of all Georgians released from prison are re-arrested, especially juveniles. Recidivism also is high for those who were held for long periods in jail awaiting trial.

To address recidivism, in July 2013, then-Georgia Governor Nathan Deal launched the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support & Reentry (GOTSR). Under the GOTSR, Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) prisoners about to be released within one year were relocated to Atlanta with the goal of re-entering them into society.

“The challenge was that the population continued to grow,” said Thompson. “And so Metro is really only serving that population of those contiguous counties. [The Last Mile Program] takes what they’re doing and adds to it.”

At the end of the 20-minute press conference, Katina Wheeler, a member of Mayor Van Johnson’s task force for prisoner re-entry (ARCS), asked Thompson how the Last Mile Program would interact with ARCS and other existing programs designed to address recidivism in Chatham County.

“I don’t know if anyone in the state can do what we’re doing,” Thompson told Wheeler after the press conference. “We’re the state Department of Labor. We’re approved to be in the prison, we’re approved to be in there, do mock interviews…My goal is to move people that were incarcerated back into society, give them an opportunity…We’re driving the truck, and I hope everyone’s able to work alongside us.”

In a phone call after the press conference, Wheeler said the Last Mile Program sounds similar to an older re-entry initiative called “Pathway Home.” Funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA), Pathway Home awarded $64 million to 20 Pathway Home grantees in 2020 and an additional $61 million to 22 grantees in June 2021, according to its website. Pathway Home was meant to “eliminate the time gap between release from prison and enrollment into a re-entry employment program,” according to its website. Pre-release services, which included legal assistance and job preparation, began between 20 to 180 days from participants’ scheduled release dates in preparation for returning to their communities. Post-release activities included linking participants to employers.

Drew Favakeh is the public safety and courts reporter for Savannah Morning News. You can reach him at AFavakeh@savannahnow.com.

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