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'We need to use every avenue possible to help ex-offenders find gainful employment'

Those seeking to begin a new life after a criminal conviction regularly discover that the obstacles to entering the labour market are simply too great to overcome, writes Vivian Geiran and Michael Donnellan.

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PEOPLE WITH CRIMINAL convictions regularly find it difficult, often impossible, to get a job. And yet having a job can be a key factor in helping someone to stay away from further offending.

That is why we need to use every avenue possible, including new innovative approaches, to help ex-offenders find gainful employment.

Those seeking to begin a new life after a criminal conviction regularly discover that the obstacles to entering the labour market are simply too great to overcome. This drives up their risk of reoffending and explains, in no small part, why so many offenders remain in a cycle of sustained offending behaviour.

Numbers affected

The number of people affected is significant. In 2017 alone, 9,332 prisoners returned to the community, and the Probation Service worked with over 15,000 offenders countrywide (including 1,446 women), many of whom had spent time in prison.

For some time now the Irish Prison Service and Probation Service have been working to develop more imaginative and effective ways to positively assist people convicted of crimes here in Ireland, and examining examples of successful initiatives overseas.

One exciting new approach focuses on the model of social enterprise, viable, sustainable businesses producing goods or services but, most importantly, delivering a clear social benefit and where profits are re-invested to create further social benefit.

In this case, the social benefit is providing employment opportunities for ex-prisoners who have found it difficult to get work as a result of their offence history.

Reducing recidivism

While social enterprise is a new and alternative approach to reducing recidivism in Ireland, statistics from the UK indicate that 95% of ex-offenders who work in a social enterprise do not re-offend.

This presents huge potential to deliver a very significant social benefit, and not just for those leaving the criminal justice system. Society generally may benefit from a reduction in the numbers of people involved in crime.

Even the Exchequer may gain – the most recent figures suggest it currently costs €68,635 a year for each staffed prison space.

The result is the launch this month of a novel new fund for social enterprises to assist people on probation or leaving prison to enter meaningful and sustainable employment through entrepreneurship and innovation.

Available to social enterprises

It’s called the ‘Kickstart Fund’. Up to €30,000 is available to businesses operating as social enterprises, utilising Dormant Accounts funding. A number of social enterprises working in collaboration may make applications.

Start-up and development work are among the costs that will be funded, but the social enterprises will be expected to generate at least 50% of their income from trade.

The key aim is to enable those leaving prison to obtain real and sustainable jobs and break the cycle of offending that so often undermines their attempts to make a better life. Having a much needed, recent employment record opens up avenues into mainstream employment.

In addition, grants of up to €10,000 will be available for feasibility and market research initiatives.

Rehabilitation

Back in 2017 the Department of Justice and Equality became the first Government Department to develop a social enterprise strategy. In the meantime it has been quietly developing a number of pilot training and skills programmes in conjunction with the Prison and Probation Services.

Given sufficient interest this fund could expand and transform how we in our communities can best support and help to rehabilitate those who have been drawn into crime and prison.

Vivian Geiran is Director of the Probation Service and Michael Donnellan is Director General of the Irish Prison Service. Applications for the ‘Kickstart Fund’ close on Thursday, August 2 next. Further details and Applications Forms are available on the Probation Service and Irish Prison Service websites: http://www.probation.ie/ and https://www.irishprisons.ie/.

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