Vocational Programming for Former Juvenile Inmates


Emmanuel Peace and Brandon Hopen 

Reference to a current Michigan bill or law that relates in some way to your proposal:


Why this proposal will make a difference in the lives of students of all ages across Michigan, or a significant subgroup (by age, background, economic status, and/or region, etc.) of students in Michigan:

The state of Michigan has a failing criminal justice system that demands improvement. It costs about $34,000 a year for the state to house a prisoner. Michigan consistently spends $2 billion a year on corrections. As of January 1, the state had 41,152 prisoners, 44,991 probationers and 16,232 parolees.  It costs Michigan about $3,024 per year to supervise a felony probationer. If all 45,000 qualified for have supervision periods, then theoretically the state could save upwards of $68 million a year, according to House Fiscal Agency. Given these costs and high recidivism rates in Michigan especially among youth (27%), the system demands a way to rehabilitate former juvenile convicts. Funding professional development programs decreases long term social and economic costs associated with incarceration, while stimulating the economy with new entrepreneurs. For minorities who may have trouble in the status quo finding employment then training programs can provide the motivation and quantitative skills for these individuals to contribute to the state’s economy.

How and where did you learn about the issues underlying your proposal?

As a young adult, I have always been plugged into the issue of mass incarceration in the United States as well the challenges facing inmates during and post-incarceration.  My exploration of this topic started in high school where I wrote my senior capstone paper on mass incarceration in America and what steps were necessary in overhauling the failed system.  During this process I got the pleasure to talk with lawyers, non-profit CEOs and chairmen, and volunteers who were all making substantive effort on the ground to combat this issue specifically in the state of Michigan.  The task of curtailing mass incarceration has been extremely daunting, and it is a problem that has plagued specifically minority groups, impoverished communities, and those who lack access to the tools of self-determination to change difficult situations.  Just in recent years there has been effort to shed more light on the issue with individuals raising their voice against it.  Productions such as the Netflix special “13th” and Jay-Z backed storytelling of the Kalief Browder Story are prime examples of this.  There have also been bipartisan coalitions against mass incarceration forming in Washington such as the Coalition for Public Safety that boasts members such as Koch Industries, ACLU, NAACP, Americans for Tax Reform, Freedom Works, Center for American Progress, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, Right on Crime, and the Faith & Freedom Coalition.  This has always been an issue that has waned on my mind.  Also knowing that in Michigan we spend more money on our prison system than on education, it occurred to me to seek out sort of way to combat this issue.  

How has your service activity influenced your thinking about this proposal?

Our proposal is advocating rehabilitating former juvenile inmates through professional development programs. Emmanuel and I led after-school discussions with impoverished students at Wayne Memorial High School through the Bright Futures program. We organized weekly seminars and engagements on development opportunities. We discussed quantitative and qualitative ways to succeed—academics, college admissions, life skills, ethics, and logical reasoning, etc. We were able to connect with students from diverse backgrounds and talk about their lives outside of the classroom. We identified some similarities between students with the ambition to succeed and those that may fall through the cracks. We also interviewed and interacted with the supervisor of the program, who talked about her experience helping the students and making sure they succeed. Our insight over 6 weeks taught us some of the major barriers that adolescents face to becoming successful after high school. Some of these types of students may find themselves in a situation later in life where they need the motivation and skills to rehabilitate themselves. Our proposal seeks to address some of the grievances juveniles face with the current criminal justice system. 

Link to your media artifact(s) giving background on the issue:

Podcast on the Adaptability and Importance of Vocational Programming for Juvenile Inmates 


Talk directly with at least 3 real live people who have special knowledge about this topic or the impact your proposal would have, and summarize their comments. These may include people appearing in your media artifact (video, podcast, etc.).

CONSULTATION 1: Molly Berwanger 

Speaking with Molly who works for Bright Futures was an amazing experience because she spoke so much to the need for education within our youth in order to empower and propel them to new heights. Her passion for education began to pour out as we spoke.  She spoke to an increased need for stability in the both the school life and adult life of her students.  She described Bright Futures as, “After school program for students of all ages to come get homework assistance and to gain a deeper understanding of their education and life skills.”  She went on to say that, “Regardless of what they learn as long as it is a place where they are comfortable to be themselves I have succeeded.”  As we went on speaking, Molly began to tell us more about the dynamic of her classes, past and present, and what needs to happen for the education the education system in Michigan to improve overall.  She believed that we simply needed to invest more into the kids.  She recounted, “A lot of kids just want to talk and be heard by someone that they can trust.  These children come from places in their life where they have been told that they cannot do something because they are not good enough.”  To her education was also about empowerment and instilling aspirations and beliefs into her students.  Finally, when asking Molly (if she had to pick) what reform would she most like to see in our school system, first she said that she would like to see an improvement in the teaching of history and current events to help students contextualize what they are seeing in order parse to parse information that they have learned.  Second, she challenged the system we have in place for testing saying, “you simply cannot treat kids like test takers,” touching on the distinction between education equity and equality.  Overall, it was a very informative and fruitful interview.  

CONSULTATION 2: Manuel Peace

Speaking with Manuel Peace, who is a chairman on the board of Helping Operations for People Empowerment (HOPE), was a wonderful opportunity to delve deeper into the issues that face inmates on a day to day basis and what fuels the prison industrial complex in America.  HOPE is a non-profit organization that proclaims its mission to empower people in communities to change from brokenness to wholeness in the Metropolitan Detroit Area.  They specifically make a great deal of change working both in prisons and with inmates post-incarceration.  Manuel described some of HOPE’s basic goals as enabling people to come from a situation of need and empowering them to reach their full health and potential.  In this case this meant reaching maximum heath from a standpoint of well-being, financial needs, spiritual needs, and the ability to assimilate back into society post-incarceration.  When asking him about day to day life in prison and what needed to change he asserted that prisons needed to put more resources into the part of their organization that subsidizes opportunities for organizations that are interested in improving the life of inmates.  He contends that outside groups do not have the access that they need, and the prisons are not providing inmates with the necessary programs and services for them to do well post-incarceration.  Once there was a time where there were educational and vocational opportunities for inmates in the Michigan corrections system.  Prisoners could attain diplomas, advanced training, and programming similar to college based credits, but these programs have been limited making them inaccessible.  Manuel said, “Prisons need to get back to rehabilitation.  Getting people back to lifestyles where they can integrate back into society with education and even religious practices to help them move along.”  We further discussed the mentality in getting individuals within society to buy into the good that reinstalling these programs would do.  He went on to say that the stigma is definitely spurred on my racial and economic factors.  Nevertheless, this is something that needs to be debunked and tore down in order for true change to occur.  

CONSULTATION 3: Lauren Shepard

I spoke with Lauren Shepard, a student at the University of Michigan who has taken an academic interest in criminal justice reform. She has participated in the Prison-For-Arts program at the University of Michigan, worked with numerous criminal defense attorneys and wrote her senior honors thesis on Prisoner Rights. She began the conversation by speaking about the importance of having an ally for the prisoners, especially during the re-assimilation process into society. It’s especially hard for former prisoners to maintain employment. This can be segmented into two buckets of reasons—logistical and psychological. On the logistics side, it is difficult to maintain a job due to employer restrictions, housing restrictions and lack of technological skills. On the psychological side, most former prisoners are alienated from friends and family, depressed and have trouble maintaining probation. Given that these are large changes that take time, its important for prisoners to have a person that can help them navigate these challenges. A lot of inmates view some of these programs from an ethical standpoint as taking away their agency, so its important to frame the language of the bill and program in a very specific manner. During her time at the Prison-For-Arts Program, where students run an art workshop for prisoners, surveys and anecdotal feedback have demonstrated the importance of staying connected with outside world. Recidivism rates are high because prisoners don’t know how to adjust to the real world once they leave, so its important to have someone navigate potential challenges—how to collect meals, rent, employment. The main importance is staying connected, and stressing the constant engagement by outside counsel.


Prospectus on Vocational Programming for Juvenile Inmates

            In the United States there are approximately 80,000 juvenile delinquents behind bars.  Yearly there are approximately 144,000 delinquency cases .  Looking at the prison system from a macro level, the Urban Institute estimates that of inmates with upcoming release or parole, 70% were high school dropouts, 50% are functionally illiterate, and 19% have less that eight years of education.  These statistics are incredible when you consider that an incarcerated individual is expected to assimilate back into society successfully in the face of these overwhelming odds. Again focusing on juvenile delinquents who are still developing, they have an incredibly tough road as social factors such as poverty, lack of resources, and missing social structures make these individuals more disposed to criminality.   Economic strain theory is also a manner in which one can contextualize this effect.  In situations where opportunities for education and vocational advancement is dim, individuals turn to other situations of increased risk to survive increasing the risk of both criminality and violence.

            Looking at the variables within this issue, there is debate around what is the appropriate action to be taken. Specific to the juvenile detention system, there are varying opinions on what causes the high recidivism rates ranging from, 50% to 80% .  A fixture of this debate is substantive vocational programming.  Vocational programming is considered training that concentrates on providing inmates with occupational skills that allows them to have more marketable opportunities within the job market.  States such as Maryland have even went as far as implementing this type of system but has come up with mixed results for a multitude of reasons such as shortage in funding as well as shortage of qualified staff.   Therein lies the issue with vocational programming for juvenile delinquents currently.  The children within the system are not getting the proper education and rehabilitation to break through a system that is already stacked against them.  Some may continue to argue against the merit of vocational programming for inmates, but if the fundamental aim of the prison system is to rehabilitate inmates and assimilate them back into the world as is claimed, vocational programming must be given a fair chance.

Potential Solutions:

Vocational training is a key solution to the issue outlined in our prospectus which is centered around redeeming the juvenile detention system while instilling inherent justice in order to break the cycle that causes recidivism.  Examining the statistics statewide, the recidivism rates largely hover around 50% statewide.  To this into further perspective, a study that sampled over 400,000 prisoners across 30 states showed that within three years of a prisoner's release nearly 67% of prisoners were rearrested.  This proportion rose to approximately 76% of prisoners re-entering the prison system after five years of initially being freed from prison.  Albeit only 56.7 percent were rearrested after one year of freedom, but these these statistics are still  indicative of an issue that seemingly perpetuates a cycle of incarceration for those who enter the prison system even once.  

    Individuals may argue over what causes the system to function as a black hole to those who enter it, but it is a valid contention that a lack of viable economic options and resources which stunts the inmate's ability to be marketable post-incarceration perpetuates the cycle of incarceration.  For example, the Urban Institute estimated that for inmates that were due to be released 70% were high school dropouts, 50% were functionally illiterate, and 19% had less than eight years of education.  In comparison, only 27% of inmates reported participation in vocational program and only 35% of inmates reported participation in an educational program.  For all of these reasons, a comprehensive vocational program for inmates and “at-risk” youth within the state warrants consideration as a viable solution in changing the futures of its participants.  That being said, such a solution could take on many different forms.

Solution 1 - State Ran Education and Vocational Training

In this solution these vocational programs would function as a way for inmates to pave a way forward post-incarceration through their acquisition of marketable skills through the program as well as opening up employment opportunities.  This solution would entail the use of tax dollars with additional reallocation of funding toward vocational and educational programs within the prison system.  It would be crucial that on the front end this program be treated as a public state run education system comparable to that of a high school education.  This would be very similar to the model that was established in Maryland.  For this model to be successful, first there would need hiring and mobilizing of qualified staff to take on such an endeavor.  There would also need to be a level of vetting that is inherent within the selection process due to the number of alleged abuse that has been echoed throughout the juvenile detention center.  Next, this would entail instilling a comparable curriculum to that of the public school level.  The education should simulate in some aspects the rigor of completely a course at a public school.  In addition, acquiring the necessary supplies to run these courses would be crucial in order for the classes to run smoothly.  All of these factors are a necessity in that they were cited as factors that may have held back the program's success in Maryland.   

The second part of this solution entails a program that functions through community partnerships with organizations that receive large tax benefits in exchange for taking on juvenile participants within the program.  This tax break would incentivize companies to take chances on individuals that they normally would not.  The education program would then act as a feeder to these partnered organizations.  Upon completion of the program, inmates could then be poached from the program to work for one of the organizations based on merit much like the recruiting process would go for any other job opportunity.  The next step in this process for these ex-inmates would be to receive additional vocational training for this specific occupation where they would now have a way forward for employment post-incarceration.  As a result this two pronged solution solves both the education and occupational needs of the participant.  

Solution 2 - Prison Enhancement Programs

This solution entails adapting prison work programs from exploitation into actual substantive programs.  These programs can function how they normally do (companies forging partnerships with corrections to enlist work); however, it should be taken advantage of as free labor or slavery.  If prisoners engage in this program they should should be paid substantive wages, that go toward their acclamation back into society post-prison as well as other expenses they may be necessary for them throughout their term of incarceration.  A model that has yielded success has been what are referred to as Prison Industry Enhancement Programs (PIE).  On top of this convention, these companies should be expected to pave a way for prisoners to attain certifications and competency markings through programs that are dually provided by the corrections system and the employer.  This solution is viable considering that their is infrastructure already in place for it, it would just need to be adjusted.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that 88% percent of the United States prisons already have some type of prison work program.  However, only 5% of the inmate population has access to a program that enhances their ability for employment via training certifications while operating these work programs.  This shows that this is something that could be implemented at a much larger level.  Moreover, this certification based view of the program would make it unique.  

To coordinate such a program there would be a definitive need for corporations to play a role.  Again certain tax benefits could be implemented as an incentive for cooperation if necessary.  However, the hope is that these partnerships could be fostered with corporations who already sees its intrinsic value.  Again these PIE programs have been shown to yield great success when measured next to similar programs.  When compared to Other Than Work Programs (OTW) participants, PIE participants were found to acquire employment at a rate of 15% higher.  After one year out of correction facilities, 49% of ex-inmates who participated in PIE were found to hold their employment compared to only 38.5% of those who participated in OTW programs.  93% of PIE participants were also found incarceration free in the follow up periods of the program.  Programs such as PIE have shown to be effective and would undoubtedly function as a solution to this issue.

Solution 3 - Prison-for-entrepreneurship (PEP) Programs

One approach to reintegrating former juvenile offenders into society is to expand Prison-for-entrepreneurship (PEP) programs. One successful model has been implemented in Houston, where inmates are screened and apply for the opportunity to take part in a Leadership Academy Training and mini-MBA bootcamp. This program hones the qualitative and quantitative skills of inmates, so they can swiftly prepare to reintegrate back into society. Inmates don’t have to rely on outside perception and apply for jobs. They learn the skills how to create and run a business. The first part of the program is a competitive screening process, where inmates have to write essays, and complete a series of quizzes and interviews in order to qualify.  Qualifying inmates are transferred to a special institution, where they begin a 3-month Leadership Academy Training. Inmates are taught managerial skills, empowerment, and encouragement by living out a value system. Finally, inmates participate in financial literacy courses, employment workshop, business ethics and take a Toastmasters speech class . The last component centers around inmates forming a business plan and ultimately engage in shark tank style pitch contests. 

This model for reintegration is based on the premise that if inmates are taught qualitative skills and have a business and professional plan once they leave, they are less to recidivate. One similar German initiative taught business and debt management skills to convicts and have demonstrated a drop from 50-13% in recidivism rates over three years. The program was cut due to funding costs but proved an effective way to decrease crime and increase productivity. The Houston model adds qualitative skills to supplement the third component. The willingness to execute the quantitative lessons on how to run businesses can only come if convicts are confident and can believe in themselves to implement their business plans. Additionally, this model increases transparency and community participation by having more individuals become entrepreneurs and becoming involved. Bridgette Jones, former supervisor of the juvenile detention of Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office, highlights the importance of communal involvement and transitioning the “parent-like” role of the state to communities. Financially, I think it’s important to discuss two policy changes. First, I think outside investment vehicles and companies should be allowed to hear business pitches. The state may even consider municipal bonds to guarantee outside investments against default in the short term say a year to encourage capital expansion. Second, districts can provide special tax credits to investors, and business created by former convicts. I think you are likely to see former convicts take advantage of this benefit, especially after learning financial literacy. Third, the opportunity would be a joint venture of public and private groups. Companies may choose to sponsor programs for inmates with the expectation of tax credits to hire former convicts upon completion of program.

Reaction or advice from a Topic Coordinator:

Our meeting with Rachel was very productive in the sense that it caused us to reevaluate and hone in our focus for the drafting process of our proposal.  During this process we have looked at the issue of vocational programming from more of a macro level evaluating what has been done in other states and why subsequent programs have failed or been successful in such case.  She encouraged us to look deeper into the state of Michigan to find answers to how a vocational training program would look and what would be the factors that could hinder or facilitate the adopting of our proposal in Michigan.  Moreover, in doing so, she caused us to think specifically, what would incentivize individual to back our proposal.  Vocational training for inmates and former inmates is not necessarily something that individuals might initially care about or see in a positive light.  Therefore, we had to evaluate how in the case of the state of Michigan to show individuals that such a type of effort would be worthwhile.  Lastly, it helped us think more about additional elements that would add depth to our topic such as a tax element.  To add such an element, it became necessary to evaluate previous bills and or models that implemented such a strategy.  Again all of this had profound impact in directing us toward the final draft of our proposal.

Research process:

We began our research process by thinking broadly about the criminal justice system and the types of improvements we think should be made to help convicts. I became interested in adolescent reform specifically from coming across previous academic research I conducted in high school for an extracurricular club. We then surveyed our peers on their insights into criminal justice. Some individuals we discussed took classes on criminal justice, had internships with attorneys over the summer and others anecdotally spoke about their experiences with the law. After conducting preliminary academic research via academic journals and political articles of the status quo, I learnt about the gap in funding and opportunities to rehabilitate these types of convicts. We decided to hone in on this broad topic area. Our next step was addressing what kind of rehabilitation programs to propose. To this end I spoke with my uncle, a criminal defense attorney, and an owner of a family business built from scratch, who provided insight onto how the private sector can play a role and how the entrepreneurial spirit should be the focus of the program. I was focusing on quantitative improvements solely after reading research online—for convicts to learn trade skills, accounting, finance, etc. My focus shifted after meeting with Molly and working with the students at Bright Futures. I realized the importance of qualitative skills—management, motivation, inspiration and creativity as drivers to succeed.  We looked for programs in the status quo modeling in other areas that address both areas of development. After reading reviews of what has succeeded and failed with regards to professional development rehabilitative policies, we gathered a good understanding of what is necessary for juvenile convicts succeed. 

Author contributions:

Please delineate--in detail--who made what contributions to the process and to the finished proposal? Who took on which responsibilities in researching ideas, drafting language, etc.?

Emmanuel and I spent equal weight researching ideas for our finished proposal. At the beginning of our proposal, I spent time researching quantitative improvements and other model programs around that country that were available to prisoners. Emmanuel focused on the qualitative aspects of criminal justice reform by identifying the psychological aspects of rehabilitation. We discussed our research with peers and our topic consultants for their input. We built on our academic research by gathering input from the Bright Futures students on a weekly basis. We alternated crafting lesson plans on different professional development topics. We wanted to each gauge a broader perspective on the issue by switching our research area of focus. I drafted the lesson plans on qualitative topics—logical reasoning, personal motivation, ethics, and advocacy. Emmanuel drafted the lesson plans on tangible quantitative topics—essay writing, vocational schools, skills to develop for college admissions. Once we reached a final conclusion for our topic proposal, we coordinated in writing the bill. We both scanned for different bills circulating the senate and once we settled on the one closest to our proposal we modified the language to fit our ideas.

===FORMAL PROPOSAL=== Preambulatory clauses

WHEREAS, the lack of vocational and educational programs in the Michigan Corrections System leaves inmates unprepared to successfully assimilate back into sustainable living situations post incarceration

WHEREAS, the recidivism rate in Michigan, while improved, still denotes that almost a third of prisoners are immediately re entering the prison system post-incarceration

WHEREAS, institutional programs within corrections lack rigorous, expansive education and entrepreneurial programs that make inmates marketable in an evolving employment landscape(Add more "Whereas" clauses if necessary.)

Operative clauses


1. The Michigan state legislature will subsidize prison-for-entrepreneurship (PEP) Programs, where private entities receive resources to train former prisoners in managerial skills

2. All prisoners are eligible for participation in the program excluding sex offenders

3. Under a rigorous application process, prisoners have the ability to apply to the program for acceptance 

  • Testing is ran through a subsidized program where metrics to measure achievement are set up 
  • Participating organizations have the ability to solicit prisons for information pertaining to applicants in order to make admission decisions

What are three reasonable arguments against this proposal?

1. A counterargument that may be raised is the inability to see the utility in providing additional funding to create programs that specifically benefit incarcerated individuals.  This has been a theme in the failure of previous programs in other states where states have been able to get some funding, but they have not been able to attain the requisite amount of funding to ensure the success of these programs.  While these programs have showed success in the past with the ability to reduce recidivism from a rate of 50% to 13% is that enough to justify this additional funding in the minds of the public and those who may be averse to it.  Some may argue no from a position that individuals who are incarcerated have made life altering decisions to put themselves in their position.  In that case, some may be reluctant to offer additional tax dollars, in any form, toward programs to the betterment of those incarcerated within the system.  Bluntly put, convicts are stigmatized as bad people who are incarcerated for punishment rather than betterment.  This may make it a jump for individuals to buy into their need for vocational programming in order to make them more marketable post-incarceration.  

2. A counterargument that may be raised is that incarcerated individuals are underserving of such programs, whether they qualify for them or not, because of the crime that they have committed.  Individuals may carry a punitive view of prison in that its duty is to punish rather than to rehabilitate.  This is the reality of the stigma around convicts in the United States.  It is extremely hard for former inmates to presume working and their everyday lives post-incarceration.  Moreover, individuals do not feel sympathy or empathy in this case.  In that sense it may be difficult to garner support for such a comprehensive proposal that calls for individuals to suspend personal feelings toward criminals in order to see the greater good in the situation to reduce recidivism, pave a way for inmates to assimilate successfully back into society, and to make our society better as a whole.   

3. This proposal may have ethical implications. A counterargument that may be raised by prisoner’s rights organizations is that it may take away the agency and individualism of prisoners. There is a wide amount of literature on the stigmatization prisoners feel from rehabilitation programs. Some prisoners have negatively responded by pushing back and quitting these programs. Other long-term concerns are that by the completion of the program, a prisoner feels that they have been a patient and are dependent on others for help. These programs may foster a dependency mentality, and prisoners may feel trapped in a state-run system. The program may not incentivize individuals to re-assimilate. If individuals are trapped in a dependency state and feel alone without agency, they may revert back to crime. Learning skills necessary compete will only go far if individuals feel for themselves that they ready to change.

Costs and funding:

The Houston-based prison-for-entrepreneurship program raises about $2 million a year from private foundations and individuals. They estimate the program saves the state of Texas roughly $6 million in reduced recidivism [1]. The state can provide subsidies to private organizations to engage in testing applicants on their qualifications and administrate the program. “With 57% of ex-offenders nationally recidivate within 3 years, only 7% recidivate that take part in the program…Additionally, PEP’s low recidivism rate can be attributed to the program’s 100% employment rate for graduates within 90 days of release. While the national ex-offender unemployment rate is 50%, PEP says nearly 100% of its graduates are still employed a year after release. The average PEP graduate only goes 20 days from prison to their first paycheck” [2]. Savings from declining recidivism costs and an increase in taxable income can serve as the lifeblood of the program. “Over 200 privately-owned businesses have been started by graduates of the program with six of those grossing over $1 million in annual revenue” [2]. Since prisoners engage in business plans and pitch competitions with venture capitalists, the state can offer ways to incentive investments. One option could be to charge a tax on the investment vehicles that participate in these high-risk investments with a tradeoff of insurance or the state protecting against certain loses. This can free up more money to divot to the program, while opening a new market for investors. Additionally, successful graduates of the program may give private donations to sustain the funding. Competing stakeholders could include private prisons, which profit directly from prison populations. Other startups or high-risk businesses may feel that they are also competing for private equity investments with these startups. 




















  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 23