IRON RANGE — A Hibbing man applied for 21 jobs without a single callback. No job meant no money for housing, food or any of the basic necessities. Unsure where to turn, he attended a New Leaf Workshop at the CareerForce in Hibbing, where he met Glory Mitchell, a workforce development and offender specialist with Duluth CareerForce.
“He should have heard from at least five [employers], so I asked him about his process,” Mitchell told the Hibbing Daily Tribune earlier this year. “He would fill out an application, then walk into the business, hand in the application and say, ‘I have felonies, do you have a problem with that?’” She paused. “He’s doing it because he doesn't know any better.”
One in four people in the United States has a criminal record. As of the end of 2017, the national prison population was 1.5 million people, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Each day, men and women who have completed their sentences are released only to face a new challenge: finding employment. Securing a job not only impacts the quality of life for that individual, but it also reduces the chances of them recommitting a crime, a point which can translate into safer neighborhoods and communities.
However, that’s only if those exiting the prison and jail systems persevere as they navigate the competitive and sometimes perplexing nature of employment hunts. For many, the battle to succeed often begins before a person even sets foot on the outside.
“There’s a rumbling that goes on inside the prison where they’re all networking together and have really strong beliefs that they won’t be able to get a job and that life will be hard and they can’t support themselves and will have to go back to dealing and committing crimes,” Mitchell said. “A big part of what we do is challenge their own perception. As soon as we can adjust that so they start to have a small belief in themselves, they just shine and everything starts to work out because they can get a decent paying job and they get housing and everything falls into line.”
Part of Mitchell’s job involves traveling the state, going into prisons to work with offenders nearing their release date and teaching them how to leave their “past in prison.” She tries to stack the deck by performing mock interviews and helping former offenders tailor their resumes to the jobs for which they’re applying. She also works with them on what to say when asked about their criminal histories. Each of these steps helps to build confidence, so they can hit the ground running.
“They get rejected enough as it is, but I do everything I can do to reduce the rejection piece so they can focus on the things that matter — like getting well,” Mitchell said. “...I’ve had really, really good success getting them jobs.”
Leaving the past in the past
For Mitchell, it’s not enough to prepare her job seekers. She takes it one step further by contacting local employers directly to find out what exactly they’re looking for in a new hire. “Another part is educating employers on ‘Ban the box,’” she said. “They cannot ask on the application, ‘Do you have a criminal history?’ That law has been in place since 2009 in the state.”
The idea behind the law is to help level the playing field between people with criminal histories and those without. For that reason, Mitchell coaches her clients not to walk into businesses announcing their criminal backgrounds when applying for jobs. “This person has served their time and it’s in the taxpayers’ best interest and in the offender’s best interest to have them get a decent paying job,” she said. “Then the chances of them recommitting crimes go way down.”
Mitchell noted that businesses that have taken on former offenders often find loyal, hard working employees. “The piece employers are overlooking is if they'll pay them a decent wage this person will stay,” she insisted. “The offender just wants to come out and get back into society and grow but not be punished for the rest of their life. They want to leave the past in the past and have a decent paying job.”
Mitchell occasionally challenges hiring departments who require background checks for positions that do not involve working with vulnerable populations like children or the eldery to reconsider their policies. One way she does this is explaining that the job seekers she works with are often bonded for the first part of their employment through the state, providing a substantial monetary safety net. There are also tax credits available. And Mitchell said she only focuses on higher paying positions.
“I’m not going after the $10 an hour jobs, as I believe anyone can get those jobs,” Mitchell said. “They have their place, but the clients that I work with, they work while they’re in prison and they’re coming out skilled so that’s pretty powerful, too.”
Finding jobs: ‘It can be done’
Alex Radzak, a case manager with the South St. Louis County DWI Court and Range Hybrid Court in Duluth told the HDT that she encounters similar obstacles with employers and knows the discouragement job seekers struggle against on a daily basis. “The hard part, too, is a lot of our clients will end up working at restaurants or for minimum wage, making it hard to buy a house or other things that they want or need to do,” she said. “Clients that go to college really have to look at what types of degrees because there are some jobs they’re not going to get employed at because of their criminal records.”
Restricting career paths creates yet another barrier. Radzak offered up electricians as an example — because they enter homes, many employers won’t consider hiring someone with a felony, so some former offenders have had to completely change careers. While some business managers say they would consider employing people who served time for sexual assault or other violent crimes, others explain that they simply won’t hire people convicted of such offenses but would hire non-violent offenders or those with misdemeanors.
When it comes to misdemeanors versus felonies, Radzak said for many, the stigma remains the same. “I feel like it’s often a struggle no matter what,” she said, noting that employers are generally hesitant about hiring anyone with any type of criminal record.
But not all employers.
Radzak has found success working with staffing agencies, which allow companies to test applicants on the job before hiring them on permanently. There are also several Iron Range-based businesses who have been open about hiring people with criminal records. “It can be done,” Radzak said. “Our clients do get jobs on the Range.”
One such Virginia-based employer spoke with Hibbing Daily Tribune this summer, but declined to be identified in print. The hiring manager said that while the number of people they hire with criminal backgrounds only comprise about three percent of their staff, the results of these hires have been similar to non-criminal hires. Sometimes they aren’t a good fit, other times they become a permanent fixture.
“It’s been one of those things where we look at each individual and some definitely deserve a second opportunity — or simply an opportunity — to change and make their lives better,” he said. “We have some that end up being really good stories with people who have changed themselves for the better and not just within the store but in their personal lives.”
After making an employment offer, they run a background check. The most common offenses they see are alcohol or drug related. He added that he’s aware of the tax incentives and that they do take advantage of those, but what he’s most concerned about are the people themselves.
“I look for good people,” he said. “Whether those people have backgrounds or not, I’m always looking for the best people that I can have in my store to take care of my customers.” He continued, “Whether we are talking about somebody who did something that they regret and wants to change and make it better — or if anybody wants to change for that matter — I’m always for getting them a second opportunity for doing things right and turning the ship around in the right direction.”