State’s workforce, corrections department heads call on employers to hire ex-offenders

Low unemployment rate could prompt employers to cast a wider net in hiring practices

Wisconsin Department of Corrections secretary Kevin Carr.

In a tight labor market, leaders of the state’s corrections and workforce development departments are calling on employers in Wisconsin to consider a new pipeline of potential workers: the formerly incarcerated.

Wisconsin Department of Corrections secretary Kevin Carr and Department of Workforce Development secretary Caleb Frostman this week highlighted portions of the new biennial state budget that they said show Gov. Tony Evers administration’s commitment to connecting ex-offenders with the workforce.

“We’re all benefiting from a very robust economy,” said Kevin Carr, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. “There are lots and lots of job vacancies out there, in all sectors of our economy. We have a lot of people who are available if given the right training and opportunity to fill and meet those needs of many employers throughout the state, especially in southeast Wisconsin, if these folks are only given the chance.”

Despite a divided state government and heightened partisanship, Frostman said, he has seen bipartisan support for providing inmates with the training they need to find stable employment upon their release. Employers, too, are warming to the idea, he said.

“I’ve been highly encouraged by the almost universal interest in re-entry programming, whether it’s from a workforce shortage perspective or a social justice perspective or somewhere in between, it seems as though everyone is engaged and enthusiastic about making sure our former offenders have an on-ramp to a self-supporting living wage,” Frostman said. “It’s good for them, and it’s the best antidote to recidivism.”

Included in the state budget, which Evers signed into law last week, were provisions to expand correctional facility-based job centers, a model piloted at Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon, to two more DOC institutions. The job centers, a partnership between the DOC and DWD, provide inmates with access to the internet to search and apply for jobs from within a correctional facility.

“What we’ve seen in Oakhill that’s been so effective is not just having access to the internet, but having something as simple as being able to send an email versus a handwritten letter with a prison address,” Frostman said. “(Inmates) get a chance to tell their story first. We want to be part of that process of getting their foot in the door.”

The budget also funds the expansion of the state’s Opening Avenues to Reentry Success (OARS) program, which assists inmates with mental illness who are at medium-to-high-risk of reoffending with their transition back to the community. The new state budget will expand the program from 44 to 51 counties. In his initial budget, Evers proposed bringing the OARS program to all 72 counties.

The signed budget also increases funding by $1.5 million for the state’s Treatment Alternatives and Diversion program, which provides offenders the option of entering into voluntary substance abuse treatment, case management and other services as an alternative to incarceration.

To successfully reintegrate ex-offenders into society, Frostman said, there needs to be buy-in from the business community. Meanwhile, the state’s low unemployment rate, which hovers at 2.8%, could prompt employers to cast a wider net in their hiring practices.

A recent BizTimes Milwaukee cover story examined the option for companies to hire convicted felons and the programs that support that transition.

There are indications that more employers are getting on board. In 2018, 646 employers in Wisconsin sought tax credits for hiring a former offender, up from 484 employers in 2017 and 375 in 2016, according to DWD data.

“No matter what the motivation is, the fact that large successful, profitable, private companies are interested in hiring folks who are transitioning out of correctional facilities is really encouraging,” Frostman said. “I would encourage (companies that are considering it) to talk to other companies that have done it, to talk about what’s been successful, how they have navigated the system.”

“Employers can do this because of their own economic need and need for manpower,” Carr added. “Or they can do it because it’s the right thing to do it. Or they can do it for both reasons.”

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