John Smith, a master technician at Meineke, served time for drug charges. Upon his recent release, Smith utilized help from the Pikes Peak Workforce Center to obtain employment. Several agencies assist parolees in finding work locally.
John Smith, a master technician at Meineke, served time for drug charges. Upon his recent release, Smith utilized help from the Pikes Peak Workforce Center to obtain employment. Several agencies assist parolees in finding work locally.

When David King hired John Smith a couple months ago, he didn’t do it for the tax credits or incentives. King did it, he said, because everyone deserves a second chance.

For 12 of the past 15 years, Smith has been identified by a Department of Corrections-issued number. Drug convictions led to more than a decade behind bars — but he is ready to start over.

Shortly after his recent release, he was hired as a master technician at King’s Meineke Car Care Center on North Academy Boulevard.

“He had a great interview and a great attitude,” King said. “After the interview, there was really no reason not to hire him.”

And King’s investment in Smith could make a huge difference in Smith’s plans to get his life on track. Studies have shown those previously incarcerated are far less likely to re-offend if employment is part of their rehabilitation.

The Colorado Department of Corrections is putting money (often via grants) toward guiding those who were incarcerated away from bad choices and into the workforce.

INTRINSIC VALUE

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“What they had in place was not working,” said Clinton Cooper, adult services team leader at the Pikes Peak Workforce Center. Cooper was referring to the Department of Corrections’ practice of releasing a parolee to a probation officer — and then hoping for the best.

In February, the DOC and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment reached out to the PPWFC, as well as Arapahoe and Douglas counties, and provided a $300,000 grant locally to facilitate its Road to Work program. In July, due to the program’s success, the workforce center was provided an additional $350,000.

Smith was given $5,000 in automotive tools by the PPWFC to help him secure employment. Funding has also helped offset transportation costs and paid for housing, clothes and professional certifications.

Felicia Barbera, business specialist with the PPWFC, works with about 40 employers locally who are willing to train and hire those with a criminal history.

Through Road to Work, the PPWFC covers all compensation for a predetermined time while those who have been recently released gain work experience. Job seekers also have access to a month-long work-readiness training program. Those re-entering the workforce are provided with work experience, a resumé and skills development.

The workforce center assists medium- and high-risk offenders and, due to grant stipulations, won’t work with sex offenders. All participants have to come out of the DOC and must be referred by a parole officer.

Since February, the PPWFC has received 101 referrals from the DOC and 39 have completed assessments and been enrolled in the program. Of those, 37 have found employment with an average hourly wage of $10.43.

Even if employment isn’t long-term, Cooper said the time is always beneficial to participants.

“If it doesn’t work out, at least this person can walk away with some sort of skill set,” Cooper said. “It’s something they can put on their resumé. But say it does work out, and they kick butt. Then the employer will want to bring them on.”

Through the grant, the workforce center is also able to offer incentives to keep participants engaged.

“If they show up on time the first week, they can earn money — up to $300 more a month on top of their regular salary,” he said. The DOC and the Department of Labor also approved giving donated cars to participants who don’t re-offend and meet certain employment requirements, such as no unexcused absences.

“And that car removes another barrier to employment,” Cooper said.

The workforce center also provides soft skills training through its Getting Ahead While Getting Out program, which includes financial coaching.

“It’s about the wraparound services,” said Dana Barton, business relations and employment development director with the PPWFC. That means collaborations to find housing, transportation, mental health services and employment opportunities.

In addition to financial benefits for the employers, hiring previously incarcerated workers “has an intrinsic value as well,” Barton said. “You’re helping this population get back to work, get stable employment and start paying taxes. And this population might have a stronger motivation to do a great job for you because they’re trying to find their way back into the real world.”

IT TAKES A COALITION

Positive Impact Colorado closely mirrors the mission and methods of the Road to Work program, but with a faith-based bent. In its second program year, Executive Director Rosemary Lytle works to reintroduce those who have been involved with the justice system.

“We’re all re-entering every day of our lives from something,” Lytle said. “We’re all trying to reach our goals and utilize our resources to be our best selves. Our program is about that.”

Positive Impact Colorado, which also receives DOC funding, conducts re-entry boot camps and provides a laundry list of supportive services, including career assessments, a computer lab, housing and transportation assistance, work clothes, tools and cash rewards for program success.

Much of Positive Impact Colorado’s funding comes via the Work and Gain Education & Employment Skills grant program, or WAGEES, a community re-entry program created by the Colorado General Assembly. The program is made up of a partnership of the NAACP, Christ Temple Community Church and a coalition of nine other faith- and community-based organizations.

Funding is administered by the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership.

“This program, at its heart, is about employment education and training,” Lytle said. “Then it’s about the wraparound services that make all those things real — you can get a job; but if you have no place to live, how can you truly be successful at a job? There are additional barriers created by being previously incarcerated that magnify everything.”

Checking a job application box indicating a criminal history can automatically prohibit some people from employment, as well as prevent job seekers from earning licenses or credentials and even exclude them from public housing.

“Even relatives aren’t able to provide you with a place to live because that would endanger their own eligibility,” she said.

According to Lytle, about 1,800 people are paroled into El Paso County every year, and programs like Positive Impact Colorado and Road to Work are only chipping away at the need for jobs and assistance.

Around 250 people were referred to Positive Impact Colorado (which has an annual budget of about $150,000) in their first year, and 94 of those received services.

“Of all the people who came through in the first program year, one person developed a new charge,” Lytle said.

‘WHAT DO YOU DO?’

Lytle and Barton both said they’ve seen differences in the way the DOC is approaching employment and rehabilitation.

“Parole has changed and the Department of Corrections has changed,” Lytle said. “There’s clear evidence of that.”

She said the existence of Positive Impact Colorado is proof.

“As someone who works for the NAACP and pushes for criminal justice and corrections reform, I think it’s pretty amazing Colorado is a leader in state-funded re-entry services,” she said.

Dawn Williams was a public defender in Colorado Springs for more than eight years, and now she assists with the re-entry boot camps.

“It’s imperative to have programs like this,” she said. “I practiced in front of several judges and had clients I saw come back in over the years. If they had something in place like this when I started as a public defender, I think fewer of those clients would have come back.”

And Lytle said re-entry programs are especially important in a society that ties vocation so closely to personal worth.

“One thing about all of us is, we are what we do. The first thing you ask someone is, ‘What do you do?’ In our society, you need to have an answer to that. We give you a chance to practice having an answer for that.”

King said Smith’s children appear to be all the motivation he needs.

“John has kids, and I think he’s turned his life around,” King said. “He’s a family-oriented guy. Talking with him, you know his kids are No. 1 to him. He definitely works for his kids to provide them with the best life he possibly can.”

And Lytle said those with criminal backgrounds re-entering the workforce often surpass expectations.

“They’re some of the most invested employees you’d ever want to meet because they have something to prove,” she said. “People have told them they’ll never get out of this cycle and will keep going in and out of the door. So now they have something to prove to themselves and their community, and they have the tools. So why not do it?”

Barton agreed.

“They’re going to show up for work on time. They’re going to do what you ask them to do. They’re going to do it with a smile on their face and with a grateful heart,” she said. “You might not get that from every employee.”