How Asset-Builders Can Support Formerly Incarcerated Persons to Achieve Their Financial Goals

Formerly incarcerated individuals face a host of barriers to economic opportunity and prosperity, including lower job prospects and limited housing options. With nearly 4.7 million adults under some form of community supervision and almost 95% of people incarcerated in state prisons expected to be released and to return home one day, asset-building organizations can play a critical role in supporting men and women transitioning from incarceration to productive, fulfilling lives in our communities by partnering with reentry organization to support financial reintegration.

Prosperity Now recently partnered with four organizations serving individuals in reentry to explore this question: How can asset-building organizations better support individuals in reentry as they navigate financial challenges and re-integrate into the community? The four organizations included College and Community Fellowship (New York, NY), the Center for Women in Transition (St. Louis, MO), Refoundry (New York, NY) and the now-closed Community Reentry Project (Denver, CO). 

For ten months, Prosperity Now partnered with these organizations to help them gain a better understanding of their clients’ unique financial needs, identify services that can support clients and develop plans to implement and assess the effectiveness of those services. Over the course of our technical assistance, we learned key lessons about the role of asset-building organizations to address the financial needs of individuals in reentry. 

Prosperity Now assisted the four organizations in surveying, interviewing and including clients in the program design process, the reentry organizations gained a better understanding of clients’ financial needs and received feedback on the best strategies for delivering services. By spending time learning about clients’ financial challenges and seeking input from clients about the best way to deliver services, the organizations could customize their integration approaches to best meet clients’ needs and current lives.

For example, Refoundry, which serves some clients who were incarcerated for decades, realized that changes in technology during their incarcerations—particularly the emergence of online banking—impacted clients’ willingness to use banking services because they were unfamiliar with and didn’t trust the new technology. The Community Reentry Project, which serves clients cycling in and out of jail, realized that housing instability was closely linked to a client’s ability to achieve financial well-being because it created barriers to finding and maintaining stable employment. College and Community Fellowship learned that many of their clients were paying high fees to have their taxes prepared and that these clients were interested in accessing low-cost tax preparers. 

Through the partnership, Prosperity Now learned about some of the specific needs that individuals in reentry programs face. But it’s also important for asset-building organizations to keep in mind some of the greater structural challenges that create financial barriers for individuals in reentry.

Former prisoners often face significant monetary penalties when they interact with the justice system. While the amount of these penalties can vary substantially, a study by the Washington State Minority Justice Commission found an average of $1,406 owed in fines and fees in Washington. While addressing fines and fees requires a legislative fix, social service programs can ask clients in reentry how they manage these burdens and partner with them to develop repayment plans. 

Individuals in reentry often struggle to find employers willing to hire formerly incarcerated persons. This problem has been documented in past studies and is more pronounced when the applicant is a person of color. This is particularly troubling given that our criminal justice system disproportionately impacts people of color. Programs can navigate this issue by helping clients frame how they talk about their past experiences within the criminal justice system during interviews with potential employers. Programs can also join advocacy efforts, such as Ban the Box, a campaign focused on getting cities, counties and states to remove questions about conviction history from public employer applications. 

The financial capability and asset-building field has an important opportunity to think about ways that asset-building services and programs can be adapted to meet the needs of individuals in reentry. Organizations in the asset-building space can seek out partnerships with organizations serving people in reentry and support legislative efforts to mitigate the financial challenges people in reentry face.

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