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'Second chance' for ex-felons: How Iowa's governor, state leaders aim to remove barriers

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks with incarcerated women at Iowa's prison for women in Mitchelville November 6, 2019. Faces of the women have been blurred for privacy. (Photo: Caroline Cummings)
Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks with incarcerated women at Iowa's prison for women in Mitchelville November 6, 2019. Faces of the women have been blurred for privacy. (Photo: Caroline Cummings)
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Sitting in her office in the Iowa Statehouse, Gov. Kim Reynolds reflects on nearly two decades of sobriety—and how life could've turned out differently.

“Especially when you're somebody who thinks you can control most aspects of your life, you don't understand why when it comes to addiction you can't also fix that and control that. The fact of the matter is, you just can't---it's an addiction," Reynolds said during an interview. "It took me hitting bottom for me to realize that I needed to get help. That I couldn’t do it on my own.”

Reynolds isn't shy about her own struggles as a recovering alcoholic who faced two arrests for drunken driving in 1999 and 2000, at which time she was serving as county treasurer for Clarke County.

She says she was blessed with a family and community to provide her support, and acknowledges that this is not necessarily true for many people facing similar situations.

“I’m very fortunate to receive grace and forgiveness and I think it’s incumbent upon me to pay that forward," Reynolds said. “It’s important to me to try to put a system in place that can nurture and help individuals who want to turn their lives around—have that second chance, and help them be successful moving forward.”

During a November visit to the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, Reynolds shared her story with a group of incarcerated women. Her candor took Taylor Pett, 24, who is in the middle of serving her sentence, by surprise.

"That made me feel a little better, you know, because I didn't expect her to tell us that she fought an addiction and now she's the governor," Pett recalled. "She was like, 'we're not just saying this--we mean it. Everybody deserves a second chance.'"

Pett, like 91% of the more than 8,000 people in Iowa's prisons, will eventually be released, according to data from the Department of Corrections. So Reynolds, charting the course of her first full term, vows to make "second chance" initiatives a focal point of her administration's agenda in an effort to help ex-offenders reenter society and reduce their chances of returning to crime.

Prisons not a place to 'lock people up and throw away the key'

Reynolds in October formed a new committee to study criminal justice reforms. It's a two-phase charge: first, the group will look at re-entry programs for ex-felons to curb recidivism rates and then they'll look at ways to make the system---from policing, to prosecution, to corrections---unbiased.

“There’s an outdated concept that suggests that prisons are a place where you lock people up and throw away the key," Reynolds said during her announcement at the Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities. "I’m focused on building a criminal justice system that helps ex-offenders avoid becoming re-offenders."

The group is tasked with giving her a list of policy recommendations by December, which she will carefully study before bringing legislative proposals to state lawmakers when they reconvene in January.

"I've tried to stay very broad in what I'm asking them to do because I don't want to box them in," Reynolds said.

The group, chaired by Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg and made up of corrections officials, law enforcement officers and advocates, has met twice already to look at a wide range of barriers facing ex-offenders when they are released from prison, like obstacles to employment, housing, transportation, technology and voting.

Many of these factors are intertwined, but ground zero for successful re-entry is employment, said Pat Steele, co-chair of the Central Iowa Reentry Task Force at United Way of Central Iowa.

"It really sets them up for other things that are important life, too, in terms of housing, reconnecting socially, being a part of their communities," Steele said.

With a $1.5 million three-year federal grant, Pat Steele is able to steer a group of ex-felons at United Way of Central Iowa, helping 200 men and women re-enter society. The non-profit provides work training while they're incarcerated and when they're released, a case manager helps them with a job search, transportation costs and housing. The goal over the course of the project is to have 75% of the people served employed and to reduce recidivism rates to below 20%.

He told members of the governor’s criminal justice committee that he hopes this small pilot program will give some insights for state leaders to implement at scale.

"A job is critical. I've often said a job is the best human services program you can offer," Steele said.

But, he said, employers' unwillingness or hesitation to hire potential employees with criminal records poses significant challenges, which is why he advocates for fair chance hiring laws that would "ban the box" or eliminate the question asking if an applicant has a criminal history from a job application.

Removing barriers to employment

"Ban the box" policies essentially delay conducting a criminal background check or asking about criminal history until after an interview or a conditional offer of employment is offered.

Beth Avery, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project---a leading expert on the issue---says such hiring practices like this don't guarantee a job, but the goal is to make the process more fair.

"That way, their very first knee-jerk reaction of the person isn't the record. They are looking at other things and the person is being viewed as a person," Avery said.

35 states and 150 cities and counties nationwide have "ban the box" policies for public employers---a fraction of those also extend to private companies. Johnson and Linn counties in Iowa passed ordinances adopting fair chance hiring practices for county jobs and in October, Waterloo became the first Iowa city to approve banning the box for public and private employers.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP and member of the governor's task force, says her organization "champions" ban-the-box policies and would like to see a policy statewide that mirrors Waterloo's decision.

"The key is the private employers---that's the ultimate goal we're working for, even in the Iowa legislature," Andrews said after the governor announced her task force in October.

There was a bill introduced at the statehouse last year that would "ban the box" for all public employers in the state, but it didn't gain traction. Reynolds expressed openness to revisiting it if it's among the list of recommendations from the committee.

"A lot of those decisions are local decisions. I think we can lead by example. I would have to see what the language is, but I'm always open to taking a look at something," said Reynolds.

A spokeswoman for Department of Administrative Services, the state agency that handles human resources matters, pointed to parts of Iowa's administrative code that bar state departments and agencies from asking about "arrest record information" during the employment process unless otherwise required by law or with authorization from the director of DAS.

Avery noted that the bill offered by a bipartisan pair of lawmakers would offer a stronger policy that would touch all public employers, not just state government agencies.

"Employers will bristle at the idea of what they can look at and when but the truth is ban the box is, in and of itself, a bit of a compromise measure," Avery said. "There is a reason it's kind of palatable. It's not saying employers can never look at this information and they must make their hiring decisions completely devoid of this information."

But fair chance hiring laws like "ban the box" are not a silver bullet, rather one piece of the puzzle, experts say. Occupational licensing barriers are common and harder hurdles to climb.

"Somewhere between one fourth and one third of U.S. workers require a license or certification from the government to do their job. Most of those 'good moral character assessments' before they even get licensed. That means a background check and people often being screened out of entire professions before they submit a single job application," Avery said.

The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, a nonpartisan group, has a database cataloging state and federal laws and regulations that result in so-called “collateral consequences of conviction”—or limitations or prohibitions that keep people convicted of crimes from accessing certain rights, benefits or opportunities.

The group has pinpointed 589 provisions of Iowa law as those “collateral consequences” and a majority of them are employment-related, like certain occupational licenses.

“That’s a great place to start: by examining those provisions and making sure they are actually relevant to the work you need your workforce to do and actually beneficial to employers," said Le’ann Duran who works at the Justice Center of The Council of State Governments.

Work programs offered in prison

Department of Corrections and Iowa Workforce Development officials say they’re committed to preparing inmates for the workplace while they’re on the inside, offering work, apprenticeship and educational opportunities. They say the benefits are two-fold: fostering better behavior during incarceration and better outcomes upon release.

Iowa's recidivism rate over a three-year period is 38.8%, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections. The chances of someone recidivating increase if they don't have a job opportunity within the first two weeks or month of release, said Dane Sulentic, apprenticeship coordinator for the department.

There are 26 registered apprenticeships available across Iowa's correctional institutions and the department is slated to add two more: nurse assistant and construction laborer programs. 330 incarcerated individuals are actively participating in such programs; 210 have completed them.

A group of 40 employers showed up to an event in November dubbed the Employer and Re-Entry Breakfast Roundtable at Mitchelville, the first of six meetings at various institutions to get employers engaged with the idea of hiring returning citizens. The group heard from employers who have hired people with a record and learned about the apprenticeship and work opportunities offered in prison.

Reynolds is encouraged by the participation at the first meeting, and hopes there will be a similar turnout in the future.

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"Day after day from employers I hear about the need for workforce so they really are receptive, I think, to looking at this untapped talent pool that we can make available to them," Reynolds said.

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