Starbucks’ short documentary series returns, offering a snapshot of what can be done to solve America’s prison recidivism problem.
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Upstanders: Knives, Fire and Opportunity

Chad Houser risked his career to open a new restaurant—one staffed by former juvenile offenders looking for a second chance.

Posted by Starbucks on Tuesday, October 10, 2017


Starbucks’ Upstanders series was an instant success when it was released last year. The series was watched by 60 million people, according to executive chairman Howard Schultz. The number of viewers is expected to rise with the increase in availability, with an expected reach of  100 million this season.

One of the more prominent stories in the series focuses on recidivism, a term for the tendency of criminals to repeat offenses. It’s a significant problem in the U.S., with more than 75 percent of inmates returning within five years of their release. A Dallas chef was able to cut down on the rate of recidivism among juvenile offenders drastically by offering training and employment opportunities. While it’s just a small sample, it proves that on-the-job training can be effective in keeping people from returning to prison.

Combating recidivism

“Knives, Fire and Opportunity” focuses on a Dallas chef quitting a job at his successful restaurant to help teens recently released from juvenile detention. Chad Houser opened Café Momentum after participating in a program where he taught teens in a juvenile detention center how to make ice cream. One of the teens Houser instructed won an ice cream competition, beating culinary students in the process.

The teens inspired Houser. He saw that someone needed to help them. After a run of successful pop-up diners with teens from juvenile facilities, Houser sold his stake in his restaurant and started a nonprofit. Café Momentum provides teens out of juvenile centers with a year-long internship, where they receive social services and learn to cook in a 12-week program. The teens are paid, and they receive health benefits and a 401(k) retirement plan.

The rate of recidivism for juvenile offenders who go through the Café Momentum internship program is 15 percent, while the rate of recidivism in Texas is 48 percent. So far, the program has worked with 469 teens.

Employment opportunities

Recidivism is a huge problem in the United States — a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that out of more than 400,000 prisoners, two-thirds were arrested within three years of release, and three-quarters within five years. Being unsuccessful in the job market can lead offenders on a path back to prison. A five-year study of the Indiana Department of Corrections shows that not finding employment was correlated with recidivism, regardless of the offender’s classification.  

Educational programs in prisons are being used to help prisoners find employment after release. Budget cuts have been cutting down these educational programs. At the height of the restrictions, Pell grants were taken away from prisoners in 1994. Recent changes have increased funding for educational programs in prison — the Second Chance Act provides grants for state programs that increase outlooks for inmates after release, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act increased the cap on correctional education spending from 10 percent to 20 percent, and the Obama administration reinstated the opportunity to receive Pell grants for eligible inmates.

Takeaway: Educational programs are the way to combat recidivism

More needs to be done about recidivism. Current programs aren’t doing enough to keep former inmates from repeating the cycle. One viable solution is providing wider access to the kind of on-the-job training and social programs provided by Café Momentum. Unfortunately, educational programs for inmates are usually some of the first items de-funded when legislators make state budget cuts, leading to bigger problems. Café Momentum’s ability to keep its graduates’ rates of recidivism so much lower compared to the state average shows there is an effective path to rehabilitating former inmates.

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Header image: Adobe Stock


Posted 10.21.2017 - 11:00 am EDT