The odds are against them: More than 4 million young people in the United States, ages 16 to 24, are not enrolled in school and at the same time are unemployed. These disconnected youth are two times more likely to live in poverty, three times more likely to have a disability, four times more likely to become younger parents than their peers, and nine times more likely not to finish high school. High school dropouts are also 11 times more likely to have an encounter with the criminal justice system. The pattern has persisted for many years.
But the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ), an international nonprofit organization which champions fairness, equality, and effectiveness across systems of punishment and incarceration, has a plan to counter the odds. Unlock Potential, the RBIJ’s newest initiative, is designed to intervene in young lives before the wrong path is chosen by connecting young adults with pre-employment programs and employment opportunities provided by cooperating businesses.
Unlock Potential has identified four groups of youth and young adults as at-risk, and those they would recruit for their program: adults who have already encountered the juvenile criminal justice system; young people with an incarcerated parent; those who were exposed to or were victims of sex or human trafficking; and those who have lived in foster care.
Foster care, though not always an inherently bad experience, is, however, a place foreign from home. In general, foster families often lack support from child placement agencies and have difficulty navigating the social systems associated with fostering — the school system and special educational needs, emotional and mental challenges of displaced youth, and physical disabilities, for example.
Ben Cumming, RBIJ’s communications director, explained the mechanics of the program this way:
“Businesses will continue to register to participate in the program until April 1. Then, over a six-month period, participating corporations and potential hires will create a project design that will serve as the evidence-based program. A pilot of the program will launch in October 2022. Over the course of 18 months, data will be collected and the program will become fully developed.”
With regard to the benefits of the program, Cumming repeated more than a few times, “It will give them the life chance they deserve.”
With support from the Walmart.org Center for Racial Equity and in cooperation with The Aspen Opportunity Youth Forum and Persevere, a nonprofit founded by Sean Hosman, Unlock Potential will leverage relationships among community leaders, corporations and NGOs to provide an employment advantage to this vulnerable population. The program will also provide wrap-around services such as employee training.
On a wider scale, RBIJ has taken on the failing American penal system with reform as the goal. How badly does the U.S. practice detention and punishment? The U.S. comprises 4 percent of the world’s total population, but 21 percent of all the world's incarcerated. The U.S., in fact, incarcerates twice as many children as any other nation — and most states spend more on prisoners per annum than their public-school students.
In addition to the Unlock Potential program, RBIJ actively campaigns against the death penalty and has been urging businesses to join its determination and push ahead on criminal justice reform. The group also seeks reforms in juvenile sentencing, in particular Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWP), cash bail and the criminalization of poverty — fines and fees which don’t take income or employment into consideration and, when left unpaid, can result in recidivism and repeated incarceration.
The impact of prison reform is ultimately community reform: When having paid a debt that was fairly charged, a citizen is restored to full privilege in the community, and his or her records are sealed.
RBIJ is asking companies to register their interest in participating in Unlock Potential by April 1, 2022.
Image credit: Brad Neathery via Unsplash
Gloria Johns' career has included her work as a columnist for Scripps-Howard, Gannett and Tribune News Service. She writes for the San Angelo Standard Times and the West Texas Angelus. Previously she was a special features reporter for San Angelo LIVE! Gloria also has nearly thirty years of award-winning grant writing experience for federal, state and county funds to support social, medical, educational and arts projects. She has enjoyed a successful career in telecommunications and nonprofit management. "Gloria is a Purdue University graduate. She has also attended Angelo State University for graduate courses and studied Texas Family Law at Sam Houston State University. She lives just on the edge of the Chihuahua desert in west Texas.