Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Council failed to fund a law that establishes an entrepreneurship training program for returning citizens.  

The bill was unanimously passed without funding in October. Despite this support, during recent fiscal year 2018 budget hearings a majority of the council chose to uphold a series of tax cuts approved in 2014 rather than fund the bill along with homeless, youth, and violence prevention programs that had been neglected in the budget as well. The law has been effective but ineffectual ever since.  

It requires the Department of Employment Services and the Department of Small and Local Business Development to establish the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program to assist returning citizens in starting and managing their own businesses through training, mentorship and classes. The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity is required to establish a corresponding fund that would consist of up to $10 million from public and private donations, city council funds, and sponsorship to provide microloans and grants as startup capital for returning citizens participating in the training.    

If funded, the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program Act of 2016 has the potential to serve a greater number of ex-offenders than any existing program, and is aimed at bypassing employment barriers that typically accompany a criminal record and reducing the chances of someone returning to crime.

The D.C. Reentry Task Force’s proposed program model is a 12-month program that includes networking opportunities, leadership training, apprenticeship and personal coaching, workshops for returning citizens with businesses and a business plan competition. Most notably, it suggests creating education partnerships by offering GED preparation courses and scholarships for participants to take business classes at the University of D.C. or University of D.C. Community College.  

Unlike existing entrepreneurship programs, the IIEP recognizes the importance of education for employment and reintegration into society for returning citizens. According to a 2016 study done by the Council for Court Excellence, 36.2 percent of men incarcerated and 35.5 percent of women incarcerated under the D.C. Department of Corrections have less than a high school education, and by 2020, 76 percent of all jobs in D.C. area will require post-secondary degree.

Current resources available to returning citizens in D.C. are not adequate, according to Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development. She said the IIEP would serve as a more wholesome program, specifically in its education partnerships.   

“We have several thousand residents returning every year,” Silverman said. “We need to make sure that they are in jobs that aren’t just temporary but can lead to career paths and prevent the temptation of committing another crime. A lot of these folks are committing crimes because they need money and we want to provide a better alternative path for them, especially for our young people.”

Instead of appropriating funding for the law in the recently passed FY2018 budget, the D.C. Council suggested reviewing a similar pilot program that began in 2016, Aspire to Entrepreneurship. The pilot provides business development training for 13-15 returning citizens at a time, with the ultimate goal of starting their own businesses, according to Kate Mereand of the Department of Small and Local Business Development.  Eligible participants receive a stipend of $9.00 an hour for the 6 months they are enrolled and are chosen based on who is prepared to go through the intensive business development training.

T. Monique Braddy is a returning citizen who participated in the Aspire program after his release in March of 2016. Now he owns a small-business incubator company in Oxon Hill, Maryland called “The Tank.” The Tank offers business consulting, IT outsourcing services, infrastructure services and other resources to help small businesses thrive. In addition to the Tank and several other small businesses he operates, Braddy is starting a non-profit called Vision Concepts with the goal of offering returning citizens in Prince George’s county similar entrepreneurship opportunities to what helped him.

A headshot of T. Monique Braddy

Headshot of T. Monique Braddy. Photo by T. Monique Braddy

While incarcerated, Braddy created 14 business plans, one of which was Express Dry Cleaning, which he now operates in PG County. He stressed how many incarcerated people have the potential and motivation to succeed, but lack resources and training.   

Braddy said that the $9.00 per hour stipend he received through the Aspire program was not sufficient to live on, and that he had to obtain the majority of the income used to start his businesses elsewhere. To him, education is a key concept that the Aspire program was lacking.  

“Although the program is wonderful, it’s just not enough,” Braddy said. “You can’t give me a laptop and begin to ask me to do a profit and loss statement. I don’t know what that looks like, I’ve never seen one … you have to understand where [the student] comes from.”   

photo by Dorothy Hastings

Braddy’s Express Dry Cleaning Service.  Photo by Dorothy Hastings

The FY2018 Budget established $2.3 million for the Department of Corrections to create the Portal of Entry, a resource for returning citizens that would serve only 365 of the 850 people released by the Department of Corrections each month, as reported in the FY2018 budget report for the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. It also provided money to continue the Aspire program.  

Returning citizen advocates Kevin Smith and Kimberly Nelson, who worked on the IIEP effort in conjunction with the D.C. Reentry Task Force, wrote in a recent article that “the IIEP model is structured to meet the needs of a larger number of individuals then any existing program of its kind in the District, and can help fill in the gap of 5,820 returning citizens the mayor leaves to fend for themselves [in the upcoming year].”  

Entrepreneurship has been proven to benefit both returning citizens and the cities as a whole. In 2015, Rising Tide Capital in New Jersey served 689 entrepreneurs and had a business survival rate of 87 percent, reduction in use of public assistance by 56 percent, 47 percent increase in average household incomes for participants, created 228 new jobs and started 73 new businesses.  

The Council of State Governments Justice Center published a white paper in 2013 that showed how establishing sustainable employment for returning citizens reduces recidivism rates, saving the city money in incarceration costs and breaking the cycle of incarceration for those who have been in and out of the system their whole lives. 

Looking toward FY 2019, Silverman told Street Sense that the D.C. Council would be meeting with IIEP advocates and considering funding for the program. 

“[Aspire] didn’t have the participation rate that it had been projected to have,” Silverman said. “[We are considering] maybe shifting that funding next year into something like IIEP which is a lot more comprehensive in terms of its educational approach.”  

Although the FY 2019 budget seems far away, Kevin Smith and Kimberly Nelson are already focusing all their efforts to get the legislation funded by organizing returning citizens and advocates in partnership with community groups, universities and businesses. Smith urges the Mayor to put forth a plan immediately to address the needs of returning citizens with prior convictions or other circumstances that block them from employment opportunities and a livable wage.