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Local resources available to help individuals with criminal backgrounds re-enter the workforce

REGIONAL -- One in four people in the United States has a criminal record. That's a statistic from the nonprofit-organization We Are All Criminals. For those with a criminal record, punishment or consequences of a bad decision may continue beyond...

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This table with data provided by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development represents occupational groups in southwest Minnesota that may be more accommodating to individuals with a criminal background. The employment and percentages represent that of the total workforce for the southwest region and is not indicative of how many individuals within those occupational groups have a criminal record.

REGIONAL - One in four people in the United States has a criminal record.

That’s a statistic from the nonprofit-organization We Are All Criminals. For those with a criminal record, punishment or consequences of a bad decision may continue beyond their state-mandated sentence, local and state career professionals say.

For one Jackson County resident, getting released from jail came with a whole different kind of hurdle: finding employment.

Following his 2011-2012 eight month stay in the Jackson County Jail on drug sale charges, Justin was accepted to receive assistance for food and rental payments. As part of those programs, he was required to seek employment. He headed to the Southwest Minnesota Private Industry Council.

“My first step was to see if (my previous employer) would hire me back,” said Justin, who requested that his last name be withheld. “They wouldn’t.”

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With the help from his employment counselor, Justin filled out a few applications for jobs for which he had experience, but didn’t immediately receive any bites.

About a month of no success continued before his employment counselor approached HitchDoc about a six-week paid work experience. That’s similar to a probationary period, but grant funding was used to cover his wages.

Now’s the ‘time’ to have a criminal record As it turns out, HitchDoc was Justin’s top choice for employment. However, that’s not always what transpires for job seekers with a criminal record.

According to Sandy Demuth, a career specialist with Southwest Minnesota Private Industry Council - which is partnered with the CareerForce - finding any job after an individual experiences an employment interruption due to criminal history is important, even if it’s not their dream job.

“Individuals have to start at the bottom and prove themselves again, even if in the past they had a solid work history,” she said.

Mark Schultz, a data analyst for Minnesota Employment and Economic Development’s southeast region, likes the ABC acronym concept: “A”ny job -> “B”etter job -> “C”areer.”

Schultz said it can be difficult to build up a reputation that trumps that of an ex-offender, which is often the master status placed upon those who were previously incarcerated.

“They come out of their incarceration with valuable skills, but they also come out with that stigma with having a criminal background,” he said. “A lot of times that (stigma) trumps the potential they have as a worker.”

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Schultz, who is experienced and passionate about using data to help individuals with criminal backgrounds, said while having such a record remains a barrier to finding employment, it isn’t the same type of hurdle it was at the height of the recession. Why? There aren’t enough unemployed people around to fill the number of job vacancies.

During the fourth quarter of 2018, southwest Minnesota experienced a job seeker per vacancy ratio of 0.5 to 1 - meaning for every 10 job openings, there were only five unemployed people, Schultz said. There were 3,387 job vacancies in the state’s nine-county southwest region during the fourth quarter of 2018.

“Some employers are starting to rethink their hiring restrictions and to be more inclusive to people with criminal backgrounds,” he added.

Demuth agrees.

“If there’s a time to have a record it’s now, because there’s so much employment needs that employers have dropped their standards,” she said.

While that’s hopeful for people with criminal records, one’s criminal record still follows them as potential employers conduct background checks.

According to Schultz, there are a handful of factors that may affect a person’s ability to secure employment following a criminal conviction. Those factors include the type of offense, the severity of the offense, the quantity of offenses; how recent the last criminal conviction was; and the personal reform a person has undergone since the offense. Schultz added that there is some research that supports that age, sex and race may also play a role in a person with a criminal history’s ability to find employment.

He said there may be some occupational groups that are more accommodating to individuals with criminal records, but a “felon-friendly” list doesn’t exist.  

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“There’s too much variation in company policies to say there’s … an occupational category that will definitely hire someone with a criminal background,” he said. “I think that’s the misconception.”

Give them a chance If there’s one thing that Demuth, Schultz and Justin all feel strongly about, it’s that - under most circumstances - people should be treated as individuals and given a chance to prove themselves as a quality, dependable employee.

Demuth recalls a training event she attended where a speaker posed the question to members of the audience: “Who here is a criminal?”

Nobody immediately rose their hand, she said. Their opinions changed as he presented common scenarios in which many people have taken part that would be considered breaking the law.

“We are all criminals, we just haven’t been caught,” she said of the message the training event got across to her.

One thing that has helped has been Ban the Box, Demuth said. The Minnesota legislation bans employers from asking about a person’s criminal history on a job application.

“At least people get a chance to come in,” she said. “Before (their applications) were probably pushed aside and not even given a chance to give an explanation or to ask for a chance.”

Resources are available Various grant opportunities, like Justin’s work experience, are available to individuals at their local career center.

According to Demuth, from July 1, 2016 through May 31, 2019, the career center serviced 584 individuals who identified as being an offender. Demuth describes her clients with a criminal background as very honest about their record and self-driven to put it behind them.

The goal, Demuth said, is to help individuals become self-sufficient - something that Justin has been able to achieve.

While he acknowledges that it wasn’t overly difficult for him to find a job, Justin attributes advocacy from his employment counselor - and the grant funding that paid his wages on the onset while he proved himself as a dependable employee - as instrumental in helping him get his foot in the door.

“In the area that we live in, there are enough companies out there that are willing to give people chances,” Justin said. “The rest is up to the individual. You still have to show up to work.”

Justin, who will celebrate eight years of sobriety this November, has worked hard to build up his reputation again. And it’s paying off, as he was recently recognized as employee of the month. He’s thankful to have been given a chance, and hopes other employers will do the same.

“You can’t just assume that because someone has committed a crime that they’re a bad person,” he said. “Good people do bad things, and sometimes bad people do good things.”

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