Alum in Action: Why Community Colleges Are Key to Criminal Justice Reform

A Batten School graduate shares her vision for a new approach to reducing recidivism.

Monica Logothetis
Batten alum Monica Logothetis (MPP '09) developed an innovative program called Jail to Jobs to address the problem of high recidivism in the United States.

Monica Logothetis has always loved thinking outside the box. As a kid, she made lists of creative inventions, like a watch face with an assortment of bands to match different outfits and incremental brake lights designed to prevent rear-ends.

But today, Logothetis, who completed her Master of Public Policy at the Batten School in 2009, isn’t using that inventive bent to create flashy new products. Instead, she’s imagining and developing systems that have the power to change the field of education.

In 2015, she co-founded DreamWakers, a national nonprofit that connects students in under-resourced rural and urban communities with career mentors via video calls. And last year, Logothetis completed a fellowship through the Batten School’s Center for Social Innovation (formerly Social Entrepreneurship at UVA), which culminated in an education policy proposal, an op-ed and a TED Talk

All three focused on a program Logothetis developed called Jail to Jobs: an innovative solution to the problem of high recidivism in the United States. Logothetis spoke with the Batten School about her vision.

Q. How would you describe Jail to Jobs?

Jail to Jobs is an idea to spur national criminal justice reform by helping get those who are behind bars back to work. The concept is to leverage the career technical education and job training infrastructure that's already in place all across the country at our community colleges. 

In America, 2.3 million people are currently incarcerated, and for each person behind bars, it costs taxpayers about $30,000 annually. Nearly 95% of people who are incarcerated will eventually be released and come back into our communities. This is a huge pool of potential talent that could be trained at our existing community colleges to then strengthen US industries at a time when we need it most.  

We all see “Help Wanted” signs everywhere these days. McKinsey put out a report the other day showing how US job openings have exceeded pre-Covid times and that there’s a big labor mismatch: the labor force is almost 5 million smaller than it was before the pandemic. 

Why not tap our community colleges to help create a path to employment for the over half a million citizens who come back into our communities from jails and prisons each year looking for a job? Couldn’t this help begin to alleviate the mismatch?

About one in four individuals returning from prison will be arrested again in the same year. I think this has a lot to do with their inability to quickly find quality work with a criminal record hanging over their head. There’s a saying in some of the criminal justice reform literature I’ve come across: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” 

People who participate in education programs while they're in prison — many of which are already run by community colleges — have a 43% lower chance of being rearrested than those who don’t. 

So why would we only provide this education to prisoners when they're behind bars? Why not extend these proven education and job training programs to released individuals, so that they're immediately on a pathway to employment — to contributing to our communities and the economy — upon release?

Q. To help you develop this proposal, you talked to many different people, including community college professors, formerly incarcerated people and prison wardens. What insights did you gain from that process? 

Direct, one-on-one conversations were definitely the most revealing aspect of this research. One particularly eye-opening conversation I had was with Ruben Gaona, [a formerly incarcerated U.S. Navy veteran who founded an anti-bias employment platform designed to break the incarceration cycle]. 

Ruben said that the correction officers where he was imprisoned would yell to people, just as they were released, “Can't wait to see you back.” It was a kind of send-off. He said that when you're leaving prison, it's not like what you see in the movies: You're in a really vulnerable position. And here's somebody on your way out saying, “I am expecting you to fail.” 

Now, when Ruben talks to folks who have been incarcerated, he tries to encourage them by emphasizing that they are more than their past mistakes. He’ll say things like, “You are not a felon. You caught a felony.” 

Throughout my interviews I was really inspired by the perseverance of people like Ruben, who are helping re-entering individuals to see a productive future, to focus not so much on what they did but what they can become. 

Q. What made you decide that community colleges were the best way to address our country’s mass incarceration problem?

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated individuals are unemployed at a rate of over 27% — higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any time in history, including the Great Depression. 

Meanwhile, research coming out of places like Brookings clearly shows that having a job is directly linked to reduced recidivism, and individuals are less likely to commit crimes when they have that stable, full-time employment that they and their family can rely on. 

There are many programs that do the gold-standard work of helping get folks reentered and employed. But we need to do that at a much larger scale to disrupt our country’s dysfunctional and expensive jail to jail cycle. 

That’s where community colleges come in. 

There are already about 1200 community colleges serving students all across the country; in nineteen states they’re even tuition-free. Community colleges are already set up to be resources for social and economic mobility. They’re already designed for adult learning, and a lot of them already offer what are called wraparound services: some offer childcare, others have fresh produce. They’re also focused on the future of work — things like cyber security, coding and traditional technical education. 

Some of the best economies in the world — like Singapore, for example — are really vocal about their support of lifelong learning as a smart investment. They focus on upskilling, reskilling and encouraging adults to have ownership of their future rather than being intimidated by digital and outsourcing. I see community colleges as being on the cutting edge of that global conversation here in the U.S. 

Q. A strong partnership between the public and private sectors — specifically, between businesses and community colleges — is core to your proposal. Can you explain why you’re advocating for that collaboration?

A growing number of “new collar” career paths demand a specific set of specialized skills but not necessarily a traditional bachelor’s degree. Companies like IBM, Zoom and Google have all recognized the need to re-evaluate their hiring process to focus on skill sets vs. expensive four-year diplomas. In fact, many companies have even established their own training and certificates to help reskill workers to meet their current demand.

Instead of creating their own programs, I believe those companies should focus their resources on partnering up with our existing community colleges.  

Done right, Jail to Jobs could be such a welcome public-private collaboration: community colleges could feed credentialed workers — including qualified formerly incarcerated individuals — directly into these companies, rather than the companies basically having to create their own mini colleges or mini apprenticeship centers.

One small business owner I spoke to said, “Why would I want to hire criminals? I'm trying to do right by my employees, trying to be a good guy. What incentive do I have to take on the risk of a criminal?” But when I said to him, “What if, at a community college, it had been verified through credentialing that this person had certain skills — say, that they could code — and that they had been parole compliant and drug free for a certain amount of time?” And he immediately said, “Definitely. Love that idea.” 

Establishing robust upleveling and reskilling courses for formerly incarcerated individuals is only part of the solution — the other part is providing them with plenty of opportunities to put those skills to use in the industries of today and tomorrow.

Q. In your TED Talk, you note that criminal justice reform is one of those rare issues that has bipartisan support. Can you say more about that and what it means for your proposal?

I just think that everyone agrees the system is broken and has been for way too long. From the right, you’ve got support for law and order, for safer communities, for a hand up rather than a hand out, for lowering that $30,000 per inmate annual cost to taxpayers. From the left, broadly speaking, you’ll hear more about the links to social justice movements, to addressing institutional racism, the dire need for improved mental health and drug treatment services. 

I also think that everyone can get on board for things like jobs and job creation, for keeping jobs local. In my conversations with people, that is something I have seen really resonate with folks on both sides of the aisle. And so I think it's important to approach this topic through a job lens in particular.

The bottom line is that at this moment in history, both Democrats and Republicans are for criminal justice reform, and so it's worth a shot to seize that opportunity for progress. 

Q. Why do you think the focus on jobs resonates with people?

I think the American dream celebrates the dignity of work and the opportunity and hope it creates for a better future for all. And because of that, jobs are something we all can relate to. 

Jail to Jobs resonates with so many people because it echoes these sentiments of resilience. We all know the pride that comes from having a job that enables one to have independence, to achieve the American dream. And on the flip side, we all know the pain or can imagine the pain that comes from unemployment. 

I think providing for oneself, providing for one’s family —it's something that most people can wrap their heads around in a way that maybe they can't with regards to having a felony on your record. Being employed or unemployed is just much more universally relatable. It's like you're speaking the same language.

Q. What’s next?

I want to tell more of the stories of the people I've met while conducting this research and developing my proposal. I’m going to explore launching a podcast in 2022 with a goal of giving policy and industry decision makers more context around my findings and more insight into the human element behind Jail to Jobs. While a podcast won’t launch this policy, I hope the conversations will get us closer to seeing it become a reality someday soon.


Garrett Hall at Sunset

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