The $80 billion reason John Legend is backing start-ups led by former inmates

The $80 billion reason John Legend is backing start-ups led by former inmates

Grammy winner John Legend is a busy man. Aside from the projects you'd expect from the musician, such as starring in the upcoming live TV performance of "Jesus Christ Superstar," he somehow also finds time to throw his own star power behind important social issues.

In his latest effort, Legend is doubling down on the work his criminal justice reform initiative FreeAmerica started by partnering with philanthropic venture fund New Profit to launch an accelerator for formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs.

The project, Unlocked Futures, is applying a $500,000 grant from Bank of America to back entrepreneurs who've faced the struggle of finding employment after serving time. The hope is that supporting business owners with firsthand knowledge of the problem will help break down the barriers to finding employment for former inmates. It could also help bring attention to the job struggle former prisoners face, which plays a major role in many landing back in prison.

It's a larger problem than it might seem for the U.S., which has the highest incarceration rate in the world with more than 2 million prisoners across the country. For many, prison can become a never-ending cycle. In fact, more than half of all released inmates wind up back in prison after just three years, according to the National Institute of Justice.

The first eight entrepreneurs selected by Unlocked Futures sat down with Legend in December and revealed how their own job struggles paint a larger theme.

John Legend helped launch Unlocked Futures, a partnership with New Profit and Bank of America, to support entrepreneurs impacted by the criminal justice system.
Free America | YouTube

Will Avila, founder of Clean Decisions, a cleaning service that employs ex-offenders, recalls applying for 22 jobs after he was released. He was rejected 22 times. "I had given up on myself," he tells Legend at a roundtable for the entrepreneurs who were selected.

Teresa Hodge, founder of Mission: Launch, a nonprofit that helps former inmates re-enter the workforce, says she struggled as well. When she was filling out a computer form to apply for a job after her release from prison, she arrived at a question that asked about prior convictions, which she answered.

"The screen went black, and it said, 'Something you answered disqualified you for this job,'" she says at the roundtable. "That's how blatant the discrimination is that men and women who are coming home from prison face."

But it's not just prisoners and former prisoners who stand to gain from the mission Legend and Unlocked Futures have set. Correctional expenditures at the federal, state and local level have more than quadrupled in the last 30 years and are estimated to cost taxpayers about $80 billion a year, according to the Hamilton Project.

It's a fact decried by even the U.S. government. In a 2016 memo, the U.S. Department of Education lamented that since 1990, "state and local spending on higher education has been largely flat while spending on corrections has increased 89 percent."

But Legend is optimistic that putting an emphasis on hiring and creating opportunities for former inmates can help change the status quo and the country's history of recidivism. The 16-month accelerator program in Unlocked Futures is just the start.

"I have seen that entrepreneurship is a viable way for formerly incarcerated individuals to build sustainable livelihoods and contribute to their communities and neighborhoods," Legend says.

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