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A second chance

Program aims to prevent recidivism by giving offenders opportunities

MARQUETTE — The National Institute of Justice reports that roughly two-thirds of released prisoners throughout the country were rearrested within three years of release.

According to a press release issued last year, Michigan’s recidivism rate dropped to 28.1 percent in 2017, placing Michigan among the top 10 states in the nation with the lowest recidivism rates.

Over the years, the Michigan Department of Corrections has funded several programs intended to improve outcomes for offenders.

“Our communities are safer when we give offenders the tools they need to become successful and productive members of society,” said MDOC Director Heidi Washington in a press release. “The department has made it a priority to provide high-quality education, training and support to offenders returning to our neighborhoods, and Michigan’s declining recidivism rates show these efforts are working.”

Funded by MDOC is Great Lakes Recovery Center’s Offender Success program, which aims to help offenders get back on their feet by providing job training and development services, as well as assuring their basic needs are met.

Lewis Strom, job developer at GLRC, works in Marquette, but covers several eastern counties in the Upper Peninsula as well. He said there are two main parts to the Offender Success program.

“We have resource specialists that work with offenders who come out of prison who are referred by their parole agent. That’s kind of the standard referral process,” Strom said. “If they score a certain level, their agent does a referral to the program.”

Resource specialists connect with offenders to help them during that first transition out of jail or prison with the hope of first getting them housed, Lewis said.

The goal is to provide offenders with a place to live, with the expectation they start paying rent or find their own place within 90 days.

Since felons are often ineligible for housing incentives offered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development — particularly if offenders have a criminal sexual conduct or drug charge — GLRC uses another avenue.

“In every community we have what are called dedicated housing units so they’re like apartment units that we pay for yearly,” Lewis said. “That’s one of the big changes I think that’s happened with offenders, they’ve gone to a model that if you provide the basic necessities, then it’s a lot easier for them to find employment.”

GLRC also connects individuals to food and clothing resources.

“You know it’s a lot to somebody, especially if they don’t have a support system around here, which a lot of them don’t,” Lewis said. “Our resource specialists will provide them with a voucher for St. Vinnie’s or Goodwill, or something like that, where they’ll go in and get their basic food package and usually have around $25 to $50 for clothing.”

Once an individual’s resource specialist helps the offender get established with basic needs, a parole agent will also refer the person to a job development specialist.

A key aspect of Lewis’ job as a job development specialist entails helping build offenders’ resumes and secure employment.

“A lot of times it’s just helping them develop their confidence,” he said. “That’s where I find I play the biggest role is when somebody just needs help in being reassured in themselves of their skills and abilities to do the job because that population has a lot of barriers to employment.”

Lewis’ job also focuses on employer outreach.

“We try to work with employers to help them understand the program we offer,” he said. “I see a lot of benefits in people getting released in terms of their ability to be a reliable employee. They value their job opportunities a lot, which I know younger generations don’t always do in terms of appreciating when an employer takes a risk on them.”

Another positive aspect of the program, Lewis said, is that employers can rely on offenders to pass a drug test because they’re often screened by their parole agent.

GLRC plays an active role after an employer hires an offender as well.

“We monitor the retention and make sure everything’s working out. The whole goal of the program is to reduce recidivism,” Lewis said. “One of hardest things locally, I think in the U.P., is identifying employers willing to open their doors to people that have backgrounds.

“We really work hard to do employer outreach and educate people. We offer subsidized employment, so we will pay half the wage for a new worker — it’s called a try-out employment opportunity.”

Employers are also eligible for a work opportunity tax incentive.

“That tax incentive typically runs anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 that they can get reimbursed at the time of taxes if they hire high-risk employees, as they call it,” Lewis said.

There’s also the Fidelity Bonding Program, Lewis said, which provides insurance to an employee.

“It’s risk mitigation to help ease their mind,” he said. “We’re really all about giving people a second chance and trying to encourage employers not to judge someone based on their crime but based on the person that’s in front of you because a lot of times they’re coming out, they’ve served their punishment for the crimes, they’ve paid their dues. So we hope that they’ve learned their lesson and often times, they have.”

Lewis said when he works with employers he usually has an individual in mind to introduce them to based on the abilities and skills they’re looking for in an employee.

“We have some successes with employers where folks we’ve helped place with them end up being their best employees,” he said. “We never expect an employer to hire somebody they feel uncomfortable with.”

GLRC staff has recently been working to identify job-training opportunities throughout the U.P. So far, they’ve partnered with Michigan Rehab Services, Bay College, Lakestate Industries and Goodwill.

“I think employment is certainly, to me, the number one factor in preventing recidivism,” Lewis said. “And in turn, they become a taxpayer, a positive part of the community that contributes and feels good about their standing.”

GLRC has 10 outpatient services offices and four residential facilities across the U.P. which provide a wide scope of services, including substance abuse and mental health treatment for youth, adults and families.

Jaymie Depew can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. Her email address is jdepew@miningjournal.net

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