The No. 1 concern state leaders are hearing from business owners is that it’s hard to find employees to fill their current job openings.
And for that reason, the timing for a new initiative to encourage businesses to employ formerly incarcerated people in Colorado couldn’t come at a better time, Gov. Jared Polis said on Tuesday.
“Employers that think out of the box and can tap into a talented dedicated pool of potential employees, who need jobs and are ready for jobs, will benefit immensely,” he said. “Now is the right time, because there’s a real need out there to make sure that we have people to power our economic recovery, and that’s a top thing that we hear from businesses across the state.”
Polis spoke Tuesday afternoon during a news conference at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in Denver where the Colorado Department of Law announced plans to distribute $1.1 million over three years to support businesses hiring people leaving prison.
The new public/private initiative is part of an effort to reduce recidivism, promote public safety and create opportunities for the thousands of people leaving Colorado’s prisons each year before reentering society, state leaders said.
About 15,000 people are incarcerated in Colorado’s state prisons at any time and more than 8,500 people are released from Colorado’s prisons each year after serving their sentence. Nearly half of all people released return to prison within three years for new crimes, or for violating terms and conditions of parole, according to a news release from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
The new initiative, announced by Attorney General Philip Weiser, in partnership with the Colorado Department of Corrections and community-based organizations, has three parts: investing money into reentry services and programs, developing a network of “first chance” employers in Colorado willing to hire those who are recently released, and supporting the Department of Corrections’ efforts to develop and expand innovative approaches to prerelease training, mentoring and transitional work experiences.
The Colorado Department of Corrections will get $900,000 over three years to work with the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership and other community organizations, to help build a network of employers willing to hire people leaving prison. The remaining $200,000 will be used for grants to support community organizations assisting people leaving the prison system with job skills, mental health support, housing and other basic necessities.
“As a state, we share a collective interest in ensuring that every person who leaves prison re-enters our communities successfully and does not take actions that may put them back into prison,” Weiser said.
“Employment is one of the best predictors for successful reentry into the community and many businesses are struggling now to find new employees,” he said. “Investing in successful reentry outcomes leads to safer communities, stronger families, fewer victims of crime and a more dynamic economy that benefits all Coloradans.”
The plan to develop this reentry initiative has been in the works for almost 18 months. The decision to implement it came after the attorney general held a roundtable discussion more than a year ago with organization leaders who provide reentry services or advocate for reentry services in Colorado, said Lawrence Pacheco, a spokesman for Weiser.
“The feedback they gave was there’s a need for more coordination and there’s a need for more resources,” he said.
The program has taken longer than a year to deploy because the Department of Law was also simultaneously developing an 18-page report, detailing how reentry employment programs can reduce recidivism and strengthen communities.
“More than 95% of the men and women who come into the CDOC (Colorado Department of Corrections) are released back into the community at some point in time. We know that the best way to ensure public safety is for those individuals to leave prison with a job, a place to live, and community connections,” said Colorado Department of Corrections executive director Dean Williams.
“We have already begun to develop relationships with incredible employers who see the wisdom and impact of fair chance hiring,” he said. “This effort will help us to advance that work in a big way.”
There will be more recently-released people than the coalition can help, and like many other reentry programs, leaders of the initiative will prioritize people who are at medium to high risk for returning to prison.
“The ones that are at lower risk tend to already have a connection to their community, connection to possible employment, so they don’t really need as much support in their reentry experience,” said Cory Miskell, Colorado director for the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership.
“So we’re really looking at isolating those individuals that could benefit, that lack some of those other supports,” she said. “And then, that way, ensure that there is equity in how the resources are shared and spent.”
Drew Patterson, owner of Basic Industries, a company in Buena Vista manufacturing basic, high-quality wood stakes for the construction and stormwater industries, has hired formerly incarcerated people for the last two years.
“I feel like for a lot of these guys, their stories have been always told for them: This is who you are, based on what you’ve done,” Patterson said at the news conference. “And man, their stories are so much more vibrant than that. In a lot of ways, they’re not that different from ours. For me personally, it’s been an amazing thing for our company,” he said.
Stacey Putka, executive director of Breakthrough, a nonprofit supporting people who have criminal histories, shared a success story about one of her former clients.
Alexis McKinley graduated from Breakthrough in 2019, after an eight month program inside a correctional facility, focused on job readiness and reentry preparation. She gained so much confidence in Breakthrough’s program that when she was released from prison, she found work within a week as a traffic-control employee in the construction industry, Putka said.
“She told us that she was less intimidated during the interview process because she was able to meet with business leaders, coaches and mentors throughout the duration of her incarceration,” Putka said. “But this wasn’t the end for McKinley. She told us that her long-term career goal was to work for a tech company with her sights set on customer service.”
After Checkr, a background checking company with headquarters operations in Denver and San Francisco, posted a job ad for a customer service position, Putka and her colleagues encouraged McKinley to apply. McKinley didn’t get the job, but continued working on her interview skills. The next time a customer service position opened at the company, McKinley interviewed again, Putka said.
“She proved that she was the right fit for their company, and you guessed it, she got the job,” Putka said.
Now McKinley is a customer experience representative at Checkr. The company markets its belief in second chances and fair-chance hiring and allows formerly incarcerated people to submit stories about their rehabilitation on the company’s portal with an explanation of why they were charged or convicted with a crime and how they’ve changed for the better, McKinley said.
“I feel this job gave me stability that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said McKinley, now 37. She expects the new state initiative will help many people reentering society.
After spending 6½ years of a 20-year sentence for aggravated motor vehicle theft and burglary at La Vista Correctional Facility in Pueblo, McKinley said employment has helped her maintain sobriety, and avoid getting sent back to jail.
She’s been sober since Nov. 7, 2013.
“It’s the longest I’ve been sober in my life,” she said. “I’m married. I just bought my first house. I actually care about life now and I care about people. I didn’t used to care about any of that.”
McKinley shared one piece of advice for the people who are chosen for the Attorney General’s new reentry program in the coming months and years.
“You can’t change anything unless you’re honest about what needs to change,” she said. “As long as you’re honest about it, anything can happen. There’s going to be slip-ups and there’s going to be mistakes made, but that’s just part of being human.”
The state leaders working on the initiative are asking businesses interested in getting involved in hiring to reach out to join an accelerator training program led by the coalition running the initiative, such as the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership.
In the coming months, the coalition will work to recruit business leaders willing to hire formerly incarcerated people. To gain buy-in from business owners, coalition leaders plan to share success stories, like McKinley’s.
Sharing success stories, Weiser said, helps reduce the stigma associated with incarceration and helps resolve the abstract thoughts many business owners may have when they think about hiring formerly incarcerated people.