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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks for the Honorable Hilda L. Solis
Second Chance Act Conference
Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, May 23, 2012

Good morning, everyone. Thank you, Assemblyman Aubry, for that introduction, and thank you, Michael, for spending the last two decades helping folks find redemption. Michael and so many of you in this room are doing the Lord's work in communities across our country: to protect the rights of victims and to provide that second chance to those who've taken a wrong turn.

There are so many dimensions to successful re-entry programs: employment, education, affordable housing, mental health counseling, the list goes on. It's a lot to take on, but you wake up and do it every day.

Mother Teresa once said, "I know God will not give me anything I can't handle. I just wish that He didn't trust me so much."

You've probably all had moments where you've felt like that. You have a special calling — to give hope to those who are trying to make amends and turn their lives around. Your work won't make you rich or earn you front-page headlines. But you are changing lives, and you can't put a price on that.

What you do matters so much. It matters to the young mother who lost everything to drug addiction. Now she's clean and sober and trying to reunite with her children. Whether she makes it, and whether her children make it, can depend on the work you do.

It matters to the inner-city youth who grew up without a father and found himself lured into a gang. Now, he's out of juvenile detention and looking for a way to feel good about himself that doesn't involve dealing or stealing. You have the expertise to help him.

Many of the people you help were incarcerated in the first place because they couldn't find sustainable employment. You can help them get the skills they need, so history doesn't repeat itself.

On behalf of President Obama, I wanted to come here today to say: "Thank you." Thank you to the Justice Center staff and all of your great partners here for your leadership on some of the most complicated issues facing our country. I know how challenging this work can be. I'm proud to sit on the President's Re-Entry Council with Attorney General Holder. My role is to give returning citizens a "second chance" in the job market.

When someone serves time in our penal system, they shouldn't face a lifetime sentence of unemployment when they're released. Those who want to make amends must be given the opportunity to make an honest living. I sometimes refer to this work as transforming "tax takers" into taxpayers. In the last 20 years, prison spending has grown faster than almost any other budget item at the state level. We currently spend $74 billion on corrections at the local, state and federal level.

The number of people in our prisons and jails has never been higher. And each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans are released back into their communities. Too many lack the support to turn their lives around. So they wind up going right back through the revolving door of our prison systems, and new victims are created. We have a moral obligation not to turn a blind eye to this problem.

As a former member of Congress, I'm proud that funding under the Second Chance Act has continued to receive strong bipartisan support. In this political climate, that's a real achievement. And it's a powerful statement about the challenge before us.

If people cannot secure jobs when they are released from incarceration, it increases the chances they will return to a life of crime. Two out of three adults who serve time had a job before they went to jail, but incarceration can reduce their earning potential by 40 percent when they get out. So, how we address this problem matters.

I want to talk to you a little bit today about what we're doing at the Department of Labor. Over the past year, I've held numerous events focused on this issue — from roundtables to stakeholder meetings to site visits and conference calls. We've gotten important feedback from our stakeholders about how to improve our programs. And I want to thank the Justice Center for the clearinghouse you will be rolling out later this week. I think having the best scholarship collected in one spot for our re-entry practitioners is a tremendous achievement.

In July, my department will host a summit on reintegration with practitioners, community-based organizations and local leaders. We hope many of you will be able to join us for this event. We also hope you'll support our efforts to make sure America's employers have the facts on re-entry.

Some hiring managers believe they have no economic incentives to hire workers who've been incarcerated. But they can reduce their tax liability by up to 40 percent of the wages they pay to any new worker who has a prior felony conviction. That's a tax credit of up to $6,000. We hope you'll get the word out about this.

Also, my department offers free federal bonding insurance to employers who hire these workers. These bonds can cover up to $25,000 for any loss due to theft for the first six months of employment. Our bonding program has helped place 47,000 job applicants and has had a 99 percent success rate. We hope you'll get the word out about this, too.

My department is also taking new steps to ensure that our federal workforce development system is helping move the ball. We fund nearly 3,000 federal One-Stop Career Centers across the country, and they all post job listings. My department is now finalizing guidance to them about how to handle postings that contain hiring exclusions or restrictions based on arrest and conviction history.

We're reviewing the workforce system's nondiscrimination obligations under the law, and we're providing specific guidance to help ensure employers comply with the law. This step will allow our workforce development system to educate local employers and promote job opportunities for people who have prior convictions.

Finally, I want to share some exciting developments with our Rexo Program. I want to salute many of our wonderful grantees who are in this room today. We all know the statistics: About 44 percent of all incarcerated adults will reoffend when they get out of prison.

But for participants in our Rexo program, that number has been reduced to 14 percent. We're proud of this program's success. And we owe much of it to the tireless work of our faith-based partners. Most Americans don't think about all the obstacles to successful re-entry. Some folks are returning to society with no money and no family support. Others face real health challenges: diabetes, hypertension or mental health problems. Many returning citizens lack access to affordable housing, and we know that can make finding steady employment much more difficult.

I've heard so many inspiring stories about how faith communities provide that family support network. They refuse to see their clients fail, no matter the obstacles in front of them. Dr. King once said, "Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step." And that's so true.

Step by step, we know that barriers can be overcome with the right support systems in place. But we have to be strategic, because different populations have different barriers in front of them. But for every population we serve, employment is critical.

So I'd like to make a little news right now by announcing our fifth round of Rexo grant awards. Today, my department is awarding $20.5 million to 18 nonprofit organizations to provide employment services to formerly incarcerated adults. These grants will provide a range of job services, including occupational training. We're helping returning citizens get industry credentials and certifications to work in industries that are hiring now. These grants are all for at least one million dollars a piece and cover a 27-month period. The objective is to provide employment services to adults who are returning to high-poverty, high-crime communities.

Next month, we'll be announcing another $62 million in Rexo funding. We began Rexo in 2004, and with each round it has become more sophisticated. We're now testing different transitional job program models. We're looking at providing greater support for non-custodial parents. And we're also concerned about the growing population of formerly incarcerated women and their unique circumstances. They have different risk factors, such as greater incidences of sexual abuse and domestic violence. They often face the additional challenge of reuniting with their children and providing for their families. Next month, we'll be awarding $12 million to organizations that can provide services to these women.

Another target population is young people from underserved communities. About 100,000 juveniles are released from custody each year. Many return to struggling families and disadvantaged neighborhoods. More than half of these youth have not completed the eighth grade, and two in three do not return to school upon their release. Next month, we'll award $30 million to organizations serving young adults, ages 18 to 24, who have been involved in the juvenile justice system. We're focusing on giving them service-learning opportunities and skills training that will help them and pursue career pathways.

We'll also be awarding $20 million to organizations to provide training to youth — ages 14 to 21 — who live in high-poverty, high-crime communities. The focus here will be on credential attainment vital to job success. Every day in America, 7,000 students drop out of high school. That's one dropout every 26 seconds. Earning a GED can be critical to getting these young people to continue their education and get a good job.

Through my department's YouthBuild program, students can earn their GED. They gain real-world work experience by building affordable housing in their local communities. And they get an industry-recognized credential in construction to help them get jobs when they graduate. Thirty percent of all young people who go through this program have a juvenile record. But remarkably, our latest data shows that only 6 percent of these young people have gone on to offend again.

These students are often are called "at-risk youth." But I often call them "our best youth." These kids — many of whom were written off by society — are investing in themselves and their future. They amaze me, inspire me, and give me hope.

It's never too late to help turn a life around. That's what the Second Chance Act is all about. It's about helping people realize their potential: people who've made a mistake, but paid their debt... people who don't want to turn back to a life of crime but need our support to get back on track, find redemption and make a positive contribution to our economy.

Thank you all for working so hard offer that support. Thank you for being the people who care when others don't. You are your brother's keeper and your sister's keeper. You're making our streets safer and our justice system more humane. Please keep up the great work. And God bless.