Capital Impact Partners and Mission: Launch hosted “Reimagining Opportunity: Financial Inclusion for Customers with Criminal Records,” a convening to discuss the role of financial institutions in improving the economic mobility of returning citizens. Please see the original published article on Capital Impact, here.

Washington, D.C. Convening | April 2018 | Hosts

Ellis Carr - President and CEO, Capital Impact Partners
Laurin Leonard - President & Executive Director, Mission: Launch
Teresa Hodge - Co-founder & Director of Strategy & Innovation, Mission: Launch
William Cobb - Deputy Director, Campaign for Smart Justice, American Civil Liberties Union


Ronald Kelly - Director of Impact Strategy, Capital Impact Partners
Lauren Counts - Senior Director of Strategy, Innovation, and Impact Management, Capital Impact Partners
DeAnna Hoskins - CEO, Just Leadership


Incarceration marks people with a label that makes it difficult to reestablish stability in mainstream society. Long after the end of prison sentences, when returning citizens – individuals re-entering society after incarceration or with a criminal record – are supposed to be finished paying their debt to society and reenter mainstream civilian life, they experience structural barriers that impede their ability to reintegrate into their communities.

By 2030, it is estimated that 100 million Americans will have an arrest and/or conviction
record, and presently 1-in-3 adults have been in contact with the U.S. criminal justice system. Washington, D.C. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States; about 20,000 D.C. residents are in the criminal justice system and approximately 68,000 have criminal records.

Having a record impacts nearly every building block towards economic security — employment, housing, education, family reunification, and access to public assistance. Capital Impact and Mission: Launch saw an opportunity to bring together local and regional financial institutions, nonprofits, civil society organizations, and local Washington, D.C. government officials to use the District as a microcosm and identify and develop solutions to help reduce recidivism and give returning citizens a chance to start anew.

"In the United States, 1-in-3 adults have been in contact with the criminal justice system." Brennan Center for Justice

Impacts of Mass Incarceration on Communities

Criminal Justice

  • Communities of color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.
  • In Washington, D.C. alone, 1-in-4 Black men are/or have been incarcerated and
    face challenges on their return.
  • When someone is imprisoned it affects not just that individual, but also their families.

Financial Services

  • Returning citizens experience high-cost financial services, in which they pay higher
    premiums for services.
  • Services such as life insurance can be denied to returning citizens because of their past.

Affordable Housing

Limited housing options exist for returning citizens:

  • Public housing is not available to returning citizens;
  • Background checks exclude returning citizens from other housing options; and
  • Returning citizens do not generally have the finances to afford renting a home at market value.

Affordable housing can also help ease the burden for families of justice-involved people because of the decrease in their overall income during imprisonment.

  • One immediate technique to support returning citizens would be to provide affordable housing loans to real estate developers, to expand the pool of affordable options.

"People don’t go to prison, families do." Laurin Leonard, President & Executive Director, Mission: Launch

The Needs of Returning Citizens

Returning citizens face significant financial (both personal and business) hurdles: managing finances in and out of prison; job discrimination as a result of incarceration or a criminal record, with a resulting lack of personal capital; gentrification impacting the communities to which they return; and a lack of affordable housing, particularly in urban areas.

Societal barriers that keep returning citizens from establishing stability can result in repeated involvement with the criminal justice system, which can be hard to break. Within five years of release, about three-quarters of formerly incarcerated people are rearrested.

There are also legal barriers to services like food stamps and voting rights. The costs of these barriers are heavy, including diminished longterm accumulated wealth, devastating health outcomes, and eroded relationships.

Of the needs of returning citizens, the two that can have the most impact are affordable housing and financial services. These foundational services impact all aspects of an individual’s wellbeing.

Banking and Financial Services

Access to banking and financial services is of the utmost importance for returning citizens and their families, as this provides capital and credit to get back on their feet.

Underserved communities, such as Wards 7 and 8 in Washington, D.C., have limited access to bank branches and ATMs; instead, there is a high prevalence of check-cashing services and pawn shops. Expanding banking and nonpredatory financial services – such as no-fee bank accounts, mobile banking, and flexible credit – can support justice-involved individuals to regain financial stability.

It is important that returning citizens feel respected and comfortable with the banking process. Working with returning citizens to identify goals and a vision for how they intend to utilize their funds helps them build assets. Lenders need to look beyond the traditional banking application eligibility requirements and consider other skills and abilities that returning citizen applicants may have that will support them in repaying their loans, such as family income.

Addressing identity theft – a major concern for returning citizens – in partnership with D.C. Public Defender Services can give returning citizens peace of mind. In addition, sensitivity is needed to the social factors that may inhibit returning citizens from getting to banks, such as an inability to take time off from work or a lack of childcare.

Other barriers and disparities exist in returning citizens’ struggle to access banking services and products. There are differences between white and Black people’s ability to access financial resources. The racial barrier creates disparities in communities in the form of investments and lines of credit.

"We need partners that are closer to the work because they are closer to the solution." Ellis Carr, President and CEO Capital Impact Partners

Promising Practices

Collaboration and purposeful investment create pathways for returning citizens to learn and take advantage of services to build their financial stability. Partnerships like those created by D.C. Department of Employment Services’ Project Empowerment, life skills, and workforce development program, leverage the tools and resources from multiple organizations to help those needing training and education to succeed.

Expanding community-based lending to areas with limited access to banking and financial services can be paired with efforts to increase financial literacy and family communication about finances. Creating services such as accounts that have low or no maintenance fees would make it easier for returning citizens to access capital.

Partnerships to educate and inform returning citizens and their families about specific programs and products, such as tax credits, can help level the playing field with communities with more resources.

Tax credits for low-income residents exist but are significantly underutilized by returning citizens. Specifically, 20,000 D.C. families have not claimed at least $40 million in federal tax refundable monies annually from tax credits, largely as part of the Earned Income Tax Credit.


As Teresa Hodge, Mission: Launch co-founder says, it is fiscally irresponsible to leave people locked out of the workforce, yet that is the reality for a significant number of returning citizens. Many justice-involved people are unbanked or underbanked, which creates difficulty when trying to access financial services.

Programs exist that promote entrepreneurship, one of few employment options open to returning citizens; however, even the best product or service idea will not lead to a successful venture without adequate financial literacy and access to financial services.

Returning citizens also face barriers in accessing startup capital through traditional means, such as friends and family networks.

The Incarceration Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program (IIEP), an entrepreneurship course run by the D.C. government, supports returning citizens in gaining eligibility for bank loans. Programs like this focus on how justice-involved citizens can gain access to capital and thereby create pathways to success.

Lorenzo Stewart, CEO of VOW Transportation, is an Aspire to Entrepreneurship Program graduate. The Aspire Program – housed within the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) – supports entrepreneurship among returning citizens. This 6-8 month program gives participants tools and mentorship to help them move forward financially.

Participants learn how to build their credit and leverage their resources for collateral to help them open up their own businesses. Stewart was given a $10,000 grant and later received a loan from City First Enterprises in order to open his own paratransit/transportation business, and now has contracts with large institutions.

A priority for VOW is hiring other returning citizens based on their qualifications, evaluating potential candidates not on their criminal records, but on their skill sets.

Looking to the Future

Financial institutions identify fear and perception, priorities, and socio-political apathy as the top concerns holding them back from better supporting returning citizens. Together, financial institutions and community partners in Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area is bridging the gap of financial support for returning citizens through improving:

Financial literacy and services
  • BankOnDC
  • Capital Area Asset Builders
  • Credit Builders Alliance
  • Washington Area Community Investment Fund
  • Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund
  • Latino Economic Development Center
Partnerships with organizations that work directly with justice-involved individuals
  • D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development
  • D.C. Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens
  • Mission: Launch

Through partnerships with organizations that work with returning citizens on a daily or regular basis, solutions can be found to address their needs. These partnerships need to be cognizant of their privilege, power, and resources. This is an issue that cannot be solved for just one person, there needs to be a system in place that can create opportunities for all returning citizens.

Convenings on this topic will help in developing a practical, needs-based approach to providing better financial services and products to the justice-involved community. Capital Impact and Mission: Launch will continue to partner to move this conversation forward and work with organizations nationwide to find ways to support returning citizens in communities across the country.

Additional Support for the Reentry of Returning Citizens

Person-centered language should be used instead of language such as “ex-offender” because language can be used to treat someone inhumanely. “Returning citizen” and “justice-involved individual” are examples of phrases that humanize people who have been involved with the criminal justice system.

Including the voices of returning citizens is crucial to ensuring that policies and practices address their full spectrum of needs and encompass all the barriers that they face.

About Mission: Launch

Mission: Launch, co-founded by a directly impacted mother-daughter team, has advocated for civic technology and inclusive entrepreneurship since its founding in 2012. The organization led The Rebuilding Reentry Coalition, which brought together directly impacted individuals, corporations, government agencies, and non-profits with the civic coding community through hackathons and collaborative workshops. Several opensource tools were established focused on record sealing/expungement and services coordination leading to national attention for the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD regional reentry community.

An MSNBC television crew attended the Rebuilding Reentry D.C. Hackathon and the co-founders, Teresa Hodge and Laurin (Hodge) Leonard were named a “Foot Soldier of the Week” (11/9/2015) on the Melissa Harris-Perry show with Ari Melber.

By way of their business and leadership development accelerator for entrepreneurs living with criminal convictions, LaunchPad, provide technical assistance, shared workspace, and leadership development training. LaunchPad was seeded by a local philanthropic partner and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

LaunchPad has resulted in the formation of worker-owned co-operatives, sole proprietorships and limited liability corporations throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C. Nationally, they are advisors to entrepreneurship trainers, micro-lenders and other key stakeholder groups.

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