Office of Reentry Focuses on Employment for Justice-Involved People, including Many with Disabilities

/ April 4, 2023

By Trevor White

Let’s start with the numbers. Tennessee currently incarcerates roughly 30,000 people in its local jails and 20,000 people in its state prisons. Out of these 50,000 individuals, 95% will be released from incarceration, and within three years, an estimated 46% of them will return. Why does this happen? In much of the research and opinion written on this topic there is one consistent reason mentioned: employment. In January 2023, the unemployment rate for Tennessee was 3.5% but the unemployment rate for the formerly incarcerated is estimated to be around 27%. That’s almost nine times higher.

So, why highlight this population in this forum? Because we know that this population is not only over-represented in terms of being unemployed, but also for living with a disability. In the United States, an estimated 26% of people report having a disability but in state prisons, the estimated rate is 40% of the population having a disability, including intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Office of Reentry Created

In July 2021, inspired by Gov. Bill Lee’s vision of “true criminal justice reform,” the Department of Labor and Workforce Development launched the Tennessee Office of Reentry as a statewide comprehensive source for reentry information, direction, and planning. Tennessee became the first state in the nation to house an Office of Reentry within its Department of Labor and not have it affiliated with the state Department of Correction. While the Office of Reentry has a productive relationship working with the Department of Correction, Tennessee leaders realized it was important to also tackle reentry from “outside the wall” through a labor-focused lens.

This leads us to our three main goals at the Office of Reentry:

  • Advance efforts to assist justice involved individuals in overcoming barriers to employment.
  • Improve the data tracking of justice involved individuals.
  • Increase awareness of the value that justice involved individuals bring to the workforce.

Now, this might be the first time you have seen the term: justice involved individual. The term refers to anyone who has had interactions with the criminal justice system as a defendant. A person who has been labeled as a felon, a convict, a criminal, an offender, or a parolee is known as a justice involved individual. “Justice involved individual” is a broader, more person-centered term, unlike other terms that define someone solely by that person’s past. Other terms are “returning citizen,” “returning talent,” and “people with records.”

So, while a lot of our work at the Office of Reentry is done at the state level, it is also being carried out at the local level through our American Job Centers, and in particular, through the reentry advisors located in the state’s comprehensive American Job Centers. The Office of Reentry provides the reentry advisors with training, resources, and networking that will better equip them and other American Job Center staff to serve justice involved individuals. To find your nearest American Job Center and find out more how they can help you, please visit: (There’s a tab for workers with a criminal conviction that provides specific resources.)

Another option and the most direct link you can use is This link also tells you what type of center it is when you search for one. Comprehensive American Job Centers will be the ones with reentry advisors. However, we do want to stress that any American Job Center can help justice involved individuals.

Multiple Barriers to Reentry Exist

Additional training, resources, and networking is needed, because we know it is not as simple as just finding a job. Employment isn’t the only reentry barrier we need to address, there are many others that include:

  • Housing
  • Clothing
  • Transportation
  • Obtaining identification documents
  • Physical and behavioral health assistance
  • Child care
  • Assistance with navigating multiple systems

Although a justice involved individual cannot overcome all these barriers by working with a reentry advisor at an American Job Center, we want the job centers to be the central touchpoint of reentry support when they are looking for employment.

The Office of Reentry staff works each day to develop new contacts and partnerships with various types of organizations, such as the Individual Placement and Support Supported Employment Program from the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Tennessee Disability Pathfinder,,, and, of course, TennesseeWorks,! We share the information gathered through these partnerships with the reentry advisors at the American Job Centers to further support that central touchpoint with new services, resources, and an ever-expanding reentry network.

To bring it full circle, let’s end it with some more numbers. One in three Tennesseans has a criminal background. One in two adult Tennesseans has a family member that is considered justice involved. These are not strangers. These are our fellow Tennesseans, our community, our friends, our family. When they come home, what will they come home to?

Second Chance Month is a Time to Celebrate

The Office of Reentry would also like to highlight Second Chance Month coming up in April. Second Chance Month was started by the nonprofit organization Prison Fellowship,, in 2017 and has been recognized by the White House and Tennessee since 2018.

During Second Chance Month, the Office of Reentry will serve as host for three events across the state, which are scheduled to take place from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. local time:

For more information, please visit:

For other reentry-related events occurring throughout the state during the year, check our calendar on our Office of Reentry website:

You can contact the Office of Reentry though their email at:

And finally, if you would like to hear more about reentry in Tennessee, head on over to Talking Second Chances, a podcast hosted by me, Trevor White from the Office of Reentry!

In my work at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center over the past few years, I’ve learned that a significant percentage of people who end up involved in our criminal justice system have disabilities, including intellectual and developmental disabilities. Many have not been previously identified as having a disability and may not have received appropriate supports, services, or treatment. When I watched Trevor making his presentation about the Office of Reentry to the state’s Health Care Disparities Task Force, I immediately reached out to him to ask about individuals with disabilities who have been involved in the justice system and whether the Office of Reentry’s work would include them. He assured me that they would be included, and I then asked him to share information about these efforts in a blog post. He graciously agreed to write on a fairly rapid deadline, as we wanted to include the celebrations of Second Chance Month! My thanks to Trevor and his team for doing this work and letting our readers know about it. If you have questions, you can email me at Thank you for reading!

Trevor White
is the communications and training specialist for the Office of Reentry in the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. He started with the state in 2015 in the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and has been a part of the Office of Reentry since March 2022.

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