Labor Department Programs Support Job Training for Youthful Offenders

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Brent OrrellSay the words “youthful offenders” in the context of federal social services and one usually thinks of the panoply of programs operated by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). But there is another, lesser-known option when it comes to helping court-involved kids.

For more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Employment and Training Administration (ETA) and its Division of Youth Services have nurtured a set of programs designed to help youthful offenders get jobs.

ETA’s programs help young people improve their employment chances by combining the insights of workforce development, such as understanding and using labor market information, and mentoring to prevent recidivism.

ETA’s Reintegration of Ex-Offenders program includes Face Forward grants that give youthful offenders training and skill building. (The Solicitation for Grant Applications for the next round of Face Forward grants was released Monday, with proposals due in April.)

In 2014, ETA awarded 21 Face Forward grants in the intermediary and community-based categories. ETA provided intermediary grants of up to $5 million to larger organizations that function as fiscal agents and technical assistance providers to help smaller groups with effective juvenile re-entry projects. Community-based grants, usually less than $1.5 million, were for single, locally based projects.

In both types of grants, applicants demonstrated a strong intake and case management system, mentoring programs, diversion and record expungement activities, and plans for career pathway development for adjudicated and at-risk youth. DOL established rigorous goals for educational, social service, employment and retention objectives.

The types of organizations that have been successful in pursuing Face Forward are very diverse. Large, established nonprofits like Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America (BBBS) and the Safer Foundation are among the currently funded intermediaries. BBBS has subawarded funds to 10 local BBBS affiliates to connect their older youth to education, training and employment opportunities.

The Safer Foundation is implementing its Midwest Re-Entry Network in three cities (St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee) through the Fathers Support Center, MERS Goodwill of Eastern Missouri, Central States SER and the Milwaukee Workforce Investment Board.

Both BBBS and Safer are using detailed labor market information analysis to identify in-demand occupations, credential and skills requirements. Both projects are also using the federally funded, ICF-developed Online Work Readiness Assessment (OWRA tool) to assess participants’ strengths, barriers and work readiness and to develop Individual Career Pathway Plans. The Safer Foundation project also includes the development of Employer Advisory Boards (EAB) to ensure that real-time skill needs are reflected in education, training and placement activities.

In the community-based category, smaller, single-site Face Forward grantees are funded directly by ETA to serve local communities. For example, Fresh Ministries , a faith-based nonprofit affiliated with the Episcopal Church, targets adolescents in high-poverty, core urban areas of Jacksonville, Fla., and trains them for careers in the health care and hospitality sectors. Fresh Ministries is also using the publicly available, web-based OWRA tool to develop its primary case management system to screen and to help monitor progress of its overall caseload plus efficiency and effectiveness of case management and referral activities.

While the approaches across grantees differ, they share similar goals to support youthful offenders in making successful transitions into the labor market by providing tailored services, mentoring, counseling and skill building.

The problem of criminal recidivism has been, and remains, one of the key social policy challenges facing the country. The federal government has committed resources to stop the revolving door of crime and incarceration.

Initiatives like Face Forward are bringing funding, innovative strategies and tools to community-based organizations that are on the frontlines of this challenge. These investments should be of key interest to youth-serving organizations around the country that seek to help young people chart new, more hopeful futures.

Brent Orrell is a vice president at ICF International, where he oversees a portfolio of human services initiatives, healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood education programs as well as several employment-focused prisoner re-entry projects.