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  • Panel explores second chances for former inmates

    A panel of experts spoke at the Feb. 9 meeting of the Pima County Workforce Investment Board on ways in which local employers could offer “A Second Chance for Returning Citizens.”

    The citizens they spoke of are former inmates desperately in need of steady employment. And with unemployment levels at near-record lows, employers are finding skilled workers more difficult to find. It’s why one employer said he finally paid attention when his office manager suggested they give a former inmate a chance.

    “I resisted at first,” Abel Cruz, CEO of Southwest Iron Works, said. Specifically, his staff worked with the Pima County Attorney’s Office’s Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) Program. The program provides treatment and rehabilitation, instead of prison, for substance-addicted defendants.

    “They did it all for me, the background check, everything,” Cruz said. “I’ve had great success with the program and never would have thought of it before.”

    Elise Townsend, a job developer with Primavera Foundation who works with DTAP, described how difficult it can be to encourage former felons that they can aspire to meaningful employment.
    WIB panelists
    “We teach goal mapping,” she said. “Imagine if you’re socially awkward. Then you pile four drug felony convictions and five years in prison on top of that.

    “We tell them, ‘Teach me about yourself in 30 seconds. What is your elevator speech?’”

    DTAP isn’t the only program offering second chances. The Federal Bureau of Prisons offers a job skills program for those about to be released that includes job skills fairs, resume preparation, practice interviewing and more.

    Similarly, Gov. Doug Ducey established Second Chance Centers at three state prison facilities in collaboration with the Arizona Department of Economic Security and Arizona Department of Corrections. The centers -- the Arizona State Prison Complex (ASPC)-Perryville in Goodyear, ASPC-Lewis in Buckeye and ASPC-Tucson – prepare inmates for employment when they’re within 60 days of release. 

    Tim Tucker, deputy workforce administrator with the program, said 55 percent of the inmates in the program are finding employment upon release. That number jumps to 88 percent at the Tucson prison, which is why the state is looking to add up to 200 more inmates to the effort.

    Panelist Danny Howe offered a unique perspective. He’s a workforce development specialist with the Pima County One-Stop Career Center, who – before he took a job behind a desk – spent time behind bars. Howe also runs two halfway houses where newly-released individuals live while adjusting to life on the outside.

    Howe stressed that service providers need to do more than offer support and good wishes to former inmates.

    “So many people have this ‘hug a thug’ mentality,” Howe said. “But these guys need to be connected to resources. They need housing, transportation and employment to be successful.”

    Terrance Cheung, program manager for the Safety and Justice Challenge Grant, supports helping inmates find meaningful employment. But he’d like to see fewer men and women getting incarcerated to begin with.

    Pima County is one of 20 implementation sites across the country to receive funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge. Its goal is to reduce jail numbers by addressing the main drivers of the County’s jail population. 

    Cheung noted that services for inmates tend to be more robust in prisons, which is why this grant concentrates on jail populations. For example, many people land in jail for failing to make a scheduled court appearance to resolve often minor issues, like traffic violations.

    One solution the Safety and Justice Challenge has employed is offering Warrant Resolution Events, where individuals with outstanding warrants and other legal issues can get those issues resolved by meeting with judges and magistrates at sessions held at night or on Saturdays. The next warrant resolution event is March 3. 

    The panelists agreed their second-chance efforts aren’t meant to give a pass to those who have broken the law. 

    “But should their sentence continue after their release?” asked Julie Neff-Encinas, a program coordinator with Pima County Adult Probation who moderated the discussion. Townsend, with the County Attorney’s DTAP program, agreed.

    “You just have to give them hope.”

    Photo: Panelists, from left, Abel Cruz, Tim Tucker, Danny Howe, Elise Townsend and John Zimmerman (Arizona Department of Corrections).

    Resources:

    Second Chance Tucson provides employment opportunities for people overcoming a prior conviction to establish a prosperous future

    The Safety and Justice Challenge Grant seeks to reduce jail populations. 

    Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison enables drug-addicted criminal defendants to plead guilty to an offense and then enter a residential, therapeutic community treatment system as an alternative to a prison sentence.
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