A former Missouri state senator, Jeff Smith was sentenced to a year and a day in prison after being charged with two felony counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice over election law violations during his 2004 campaign.
The experience led him to write the book, “Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America's Prison Crisis.” And since his release, he’s worked to reform the criminal justice system and help other former offenders get their lives back on track.
One such effort led him to the St. Louis University Transformative Workforce Academy’s Second Chance Job Fair, which seeks to connect employers with ex-offenders looking for work.
Smith says these connections are important because whether an ex-offender finds a job in the first year out of prison correlates to his or her likelihood of recidivism.
“We know [recidivism rates] are extraordinarily low for those who have full-time employment in their first year after release,” he said Monday on St. Louis on the Air. “We know they are in the mid-single digits if you land full-time employment, and they are roughly 10 times higher for people who, a year following release, have not found full-time employment.”
After attending the first Second Chance Job Fair two years ago, ex-offender Tracy Stanton landed a job. She said the job fair gave her hope at a time when it was in short supply.
“When you come home from prison ... you’re doing everything you are supposed to be doing, you’re following all the rules, you’re going to see your probation or parole officer, and you’re just trying,” she said. “And when the doors get closed in your face, it really crushes your spirit. So going to that job fair not only awakened a part of me that was damaged, it gave me hope.”
Since Stanton was released in 2017, she’s become involved in criminal justice reform. She’s now working as a “bail disruptor” with the Bail Project, is a board member with Center For Women in Transition and a program facilitator with the Institute for Peace and Justice, and owns a company called Addiction to Ambition.
“When I came home, one person gave me a chance, and that propelled the life that I have right now today,” she said. “There are millions of people just like me that just need a chance.”
It's not just ex-offenders who gain from job fairs for the formerly incarcerated, Smith said, but employers as well.
“In fact, Northwestern University studied this very issue, and their research showed that people who were formerly incarcerated are no more likely to be involved in workplace misconduct than someone who has not been. And other research has actually shown that formerly incarcerated people are more likely to be promoted in their first two years than other people. That ties in with one thing that I often hear from employers, which is, ‘These are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever hired,’” Smith said.
“I also know that there’s research showing that people are less likely to quit. And with turnover costs being very expensive … when you have someone that you hire fresh out of prison, they are often very grateful for that opportunity and unlikely to leave because they want to show that gratitude.”
In this episode of St. Louis on the Air, Sarah Fenske talked with Smith and Stanton. Listen to the full conversation:
What: Second Chance Job Fair
When: April 1
Where: Chaifetz Arena (1 S. Compton Ave., St. Louis, MO 63103)
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.
Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.