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Ex-offenders in Minnesota are slow-but-growing pipeline for employers

Neal St. Anthony, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Business News

The administration of Gov. Tim Walz wants more Minnesota criminal offenders to find a job and housing and fewer to return to prison.

The Minnesota Legislature this session mostly approved more money for the Department of Corrections for increased staffing in the wake of violent in-prison altercations that resulted in the deaths of two prison guards.

However, Deputy Commissioner Sarah Walker, who once worked with ex-offenders and lobbied for the Second Chance Coalition, said the long-term strategy is to reduce incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenders and curtail technical parole violations that can send former inmates back to prison. It's estimated that up to half of offenders are back in jail within a couple of years.

"In Minnesota we have two positions open for every person seeking a job," Walker said. "There's a huge opportunity right now."

Employers are slowly hiring more former convicts as a historically tight labor market offers them incentives to look past the stigma of a prison record. The effort to further bolster hiring faces limits. Some types of felons are barred from working in certain industries like health care, financial services or around children. But, there has been some movement at the Legislature to relax some prohibitions that can keep ex-offenders from landing a job or place to live.

Over the last two years, CEO Isabelle Day of Quality Ingredients of Burnsville, Minn., has hired eight former felons, now 15% of her 56-person workforce, through Minneapolis training-nonprofit Twin Cities Rise, after struggling to retain workers who start at $15 an hour.

 

She's been lauded by state corrections officials for her outreach and for helping former offenders with transportation and other issues.

She is delighted with their work ethic, attendance record and what they bring to the company. Quality Ingredients has improved its 401(k) retirement plan to up to 10% of compensation, whether the worker puts anything in or not. And the company has a short-term, interest-free loan fund.

"A business ... must take care of customers, but we must equally take care of employees," Day said. "We love Twin Cities Rise and will continue to work with them to provide jobs (to former inmates)."

According to Walker and state statistics, Minnesota prisons cost taxpayers more than $50,000 per inmate per year. State jails are near capacity, more than 9,500 inmates. Another 111,000 adult offenders, including those released from county jails, are on yearslong probation. Most have served time for crimes against people, property, drug and drunk-driving offenses.

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