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Transitioning from the Criminal Justice System in the COVID Economy: the FAIR project

By Carolann Murphy, PA

Finding a job and maintaining employment are challenges for everyone today, and people with disabilities who are striving to work face mounting challenges to reaching their goal of financial independence. Individuals with disabilities who are re-entering the community from jail or prison have even greater needs for comprehensive services and supports. The pandemic has promoted early release of inmates to reduce exposure in crowded facilities, increasing the need for vocational support for this population.

In Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, efforts were already underway to improve employment outcomes and financial security of formerly incarcerated individuals with disabilities, with an ultimate goal of helping people remain in their communities. In 2019, with funding from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Kessler Foundation, Disability Rights Louisiana launched the FAIR project (Financial Access Inclusion and Resources), in response to the state’s plans to reduce the prison population by 10%.       

FAIR enrolls individuals pending release from incarceration within 3 months, as well as those up to 10 years post release, assessing baseline goals, identifying barriers to employment, and creating an action plan with tasks and target dates. Financial coaching is the cornerstone of FAIR’s flexible and holistic program, which partners with the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana to address clients’ court fines and fees and draws on community resources for job training and placement, health care, legal services, housing assistance, and other services. As of March 2020, 61% of enrollees were actively participating, with 48% working, and a growing number increasing their incomes and reducing their debts, according to FAIR’s program director Libby Whiteside at Disability Rights Louisiana. The spread of COVID-19, however, prompted measures that triggered layoffs that affected FAIR’s clients, and complicated the coordination of community services.

“We are grateful to have this program up and running at a time like this,” says Whiteside, “when it is so important to help our clients access services and supports during this time, so they are positioned for employment opportunities moving forward.” Working remotely, Whiteside and case manager Pat Holmes have been able to continue to accept new clients and provide case management and financial coaching services. They find the most pressing current needs of their clients relate to accessing healthcare services, reporting wage changes to Social Security, and applying for income supports, including disability benefits, SNAP, unemployment assistance, and rental assistance.

Many of the career development providers that had assisted FAIR’s clients have suspended their employment services. ”For clients who are job-ready, we are helping them apply for high-demand opportunities,” says Whiteside, “while keeping in mind that many of our clients are considered to be in the high-risk category for coronavirus infection.”

Whiteside anticipates the need to be creative and pivot to find new opportunities to meet client needs. “We have participated in webinars hosted by National Disability Institute and APSE on how COVID-19 has impacted the disability community and on providing remote employment supports,” she reports, “and we are taking weekly courses from the Financial Clinic on financial coaching strategies in the face of COVID-19, as well as attending New Orleans Reentry Task Force and other meetings focused on the needs of people in reentry during this pandemic. Like many disability organizations,” she said in conclusion, “we are finding our way, seeking new ways to connect, building new relationships and improving our own capacity for finding job leads available to the population we serve.”

Based on the May 8, 2020 National Trends in Disability Employment report.