Formerly Incarcerated People Deserve a Just Green New Deal

The Green New Deal resolution now before Congress asserts that there can be no environmental justice without social and economic justice. Its proponents have promised to create quality jobs for low-income people, communities of color, and workers in fossil fuel industries. 

But the resolution left out one group that desperately needs a place in this new economy: people with criminal records. They can also excel in green jobs, and future environmental policies must account for them, too.

The challenges of climate change and mass incarceration may not seem connected, but they are. Recent state and local environmental actions have created jobs for people living in poverty and other marginalized groups. This allows them not just to have jobs but to pay for housing, transit and other necessities.

By broadening the scope of the Green New Deal proposal to include jobs for the formerly incarcerated, we can reduce mass incarceration and improve public safety. An appropriate response to the looming threat of climate change will create millions of new jobs, many of which provide significant on-the-job training and don’t require college degrees. 

Funneling green jobs to justice-involved people is not a completely new idea.

For example, efforts to curb carbon emissions will boost the construction and retrofitting industries. Publicly funded resiliency projects, such as the plan to extend the shores of lower Manhattan, will create infrastructure jobs. Renewable energy mandates will require new electricians and solar panel technicians.

There are multiple ways to include justice-involved people in environmental policy. Legislation can fund training and certifications for skilled jobs — think electrician, carpenter, HVAC mechanic or solar technician — in prisons and community groups that work with former inmates. 

In places with strong construction and trade unions, governments can fund apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs that provide necessary supports and training. Governments can also negotiate Project Labor Agreements that require the hiring of workers referred by reentry organizations for green projects that receive public funding.

Funneling green jobs to justice-involved people is not a completely new idea. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, activist Van Jones and others have long pushed for the targeted creation of green jobs among communities of color, which suffer a hugely disproportionate share of environmental injustices and have borne the brunt of mass incarceration.

Illinois’ 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act is perhaps a model for how environmentalism and criminal justice reform can work together. The act funds solar panel installation training, the installations themselves, and installation jobs in low-income communities, and it requires that 2,000 people with criminal records or foster care histories be hired into these jobs.

Folding justice reform into an ambitious climate plan may sound like a pipedream at a time when the Trump administration wants to rescind auto fuel-efficiency goals and make light bulbs less efficient. Any federal version of a Green New Deal is indeed impossible until at least 2021, and even then may be modest in scope.

Yet, the increasing toll of hurricanes, floods, wildfires and extreme temperatures is driving public opinion in the right direction. Numerous states and cities have already taken steps to embrace Green New Deal initiatives. 

On criminal justice, a modest reform package recently passed at the federal level, and bipartisan action to reduce state prison populations has gained momentum over the past decade. With millions of new jobs coming, justice-involved people do not have to be pitted against, say, manufacturing or fossil-fuel workers.

Whether at the local, state or national level, new environmental policies should explicitly benefit people who have suffered the most under our twisted criminal justice system. This will make our communities not just more sustainable and resilient, but fairer and safer, too.

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