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Jobs, not jail: Why the workforce shortage is good news for the fight against recidivism

While many state agencies have long considered job applicants with criminal records,  low unemployment and record-high number of retirements have created a unique opportunity.

Graduates will have access to maintenance and clerical positions at state and local agencies that pay at least $15 an hour.
Photo by Vadim Sherbakov on Unsplash

Next month, Minneapolis will join five other cities in a nationwide push to reduce workplace barriers for people with criminal records in an effort to lower the country’s steep recidivism rates.

According to a study released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics this week, five out of six state prisoners were arrested at least once within nine years of their release — about 83 percent. Minnesota’s recidivism rate is far lower than the national average, but it also shows no signs of improvement, hanging steadily around 35 to 37 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

To try to put a dent in that figure, Minneapolis nonprofit Project for Pride in Living (PPL) will relaunch their job training program aimed at reducing those recidivism rates by better preparing individuals with criminal backgrounds for the workplace and connecting them with willing employers.

The $450,000 training program, in partnership with city, county and state agencies, will be spread out over two years and comes from a larger $4.5 million U.S. Department of Labor grant recently awarded to five cities nationwide to help build economic opportunities and reduce recidivism rates in high-crime, low-income areas. Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and Providence, Rhode Island will also be participating in the effort with similar programs.

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This isn’t the first time PPL, or other Minneapolis organizations, have run workforce training programs aimed at reducing barriers for those with criminal records or coming out of incarceration — also known as re-entry work. But organizers with the effort say that the influx of federal dollars, along with low unemployment and record-high retirements have created a unique opportunity for this kind of work to succeed.

“This job market is actually very friendly toward people with backgrounds right now,” said Tony Dosen, who helps manage PPL’s reentry program. “A lot of agencies are changing their practices. There’s too many openings and they can’t afford to not hire people with backgrounds in a lot of cases.”

Filling demand

While many state agencies have long considered job applicants with criminal records, in recent years there’s simply been more job openings, said Lenora Madigan, a deputy commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Administration.

Madigan’s department of about 500 employees often sees up to 15 open positions at the agency at any given time, she said, and that’s one of the reasons her department decided to team up with PPL by accepting three graduates from its re-entry program over the next few months.

“We’re having retirements at record rates theses days and we have a lot of positions to fill,” Madigan said. “Filling them with people who are anxious to work and can do a good job for the state of Minnesota is really important.”

Dosen said he’s seeing the same trend across the state, and participants who graduate PPL’s program will have the chance to apply for jobs at several government agencies, including Minneapolis Public Works, Hennepin County’s Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Department of Transportation.

Participants will receive training in soft skills, he said, like how to dress and act in interviews, how to interact with coworkers and even how to talk about their criminal history in a positive way. But most importantly, Dosen said, graduates will have access to maintenance and clerical positions at state and local agencies that pay at least $15 an hour.

May Xiong, vice president of PPL’s employment readiness division, said finding work that pays a living wage is important for both building up economic opportunities in low-income neighborhoods and reducing the chance for people coming out of incarceration of reoffending. She said PPL hopes to serve at least 50 individuals by the end of September.

“These are often individuals who are overcoming a lot,” Xiong said. “I think it’s such a needed program.”

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Part of a broader effort

PPL’s work is part of a broader national effort to reduce recidivism and disparities in low-income neighborhoods across the country, said Andriana Abariotes, the executive director for the Twin Cities branch of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, or LISC.

LISC, a national anti-poverty nonprofit, is responsible for financing PPL’s re-entry work along with six other sites running similar re-entry programs, including EMERGE in north Minneapolis. But that $4.5 million federal grant is just a small part of the $72 million that the U.S. Department of Labor has awarded for recidivism reduction programs across the country since last year.

Underscoring that point, Abariotes said that at the nearly 80 workforce training sites that LISC runs nationwide, last year 26 percent of the clients had some kind of criminal record.

Considered in light of the country’s high recidivism rate — the bureau’s report also found that 44 percent of state prisoners reoffended within the first year — it’s easy to understand why it’s so important to give those coming out of incarceration more opportunities, Abariotes said. “That’s some of what we’re trying to solve,” she said, “breaking that cycle.”