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Job market even tougher for ex-offenders

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Finding a job in this economy is difficult, and with a criminal background it's even more so. At the same time, foundations are cutting funds for ex-offender work programs.

Terrence Blanton's interview for a sales job with a company in Brooklyn Park was at 3 p.m. He got there at 2 p.m. just in case.

At 5:30 p.m., the clean cut 49-year-old emerged from the building. He stood in the business strip's darkened parking lot, shaking his head.

"It's really rough right now," Blanton said. "When I was in there I didn't think it would be this hard."

Blanton is an ex-offender. It's always been difficult for people with records to find jobs, but in this economy, it's even more so. At the same time, foundations are cutting funds for ex-offender work programs. Experts say the situation threatens public safety and may lead to increased crime rates.

Blanton had checked the box that asked if he had a felony when he filled out the job application online. When a woman from the company called, he told her about his record. She said it was OK, that the company accepted ex-offenders.

But now Blanton has doubts. He hasn't found a full-time job in the nine months since he was released from prison, and some consider his crime the worst of the worst.

"When I was in there I didn't think it would be this hard."

"It was criminal sexual conduct," Blanton said. "That's something I can never live down. It was so terrible. Even though it was like a drug transaction gone bad she said no ... that night she said no. It was that simple. And I didn't take no."

Blanton was raised in public housing and has done three stretches in prison. His first was five years in California, for burglary.

In 1994 he moved to Minnesota to live with aunts and cousins. Within a year he was arrested on the criminal sex offense. He said he was high on crack. The state sex offender registry said he used a weapon. Blanton spent ten years in prison for the rape.

He was released in 2004, but soon went back for doing drugs. He got out in early 2008, but returned to jail for a parole violation on September 7.

"I was drinking. On my birthday, and I wasn't supposed to be drinking," Blanton said. "And there were consequences -- five months. It was inexcusable. On the day of my birthday I went to jail. Last year."

Now, Blanton's been out since March. At first, he had a full-time job at a supermarket but was fired when he was caught smoking pot.

Blanton said he's been sober since then. He had one temporary full-time at a potato chip factory.

"I did everything -- bag chips, stack chips, pick chips; everything with chips. Gross," he said. "But when you work, it just raises my self esteem. Give me confidence. I'm doing [it] for me. No one else is doing for me, paying my bills. Make me feel good."

He's no longer on parole and the state doesn't require drug tests. He's only been able to find a few temporary or part-time jobs. He's applied for hundreds of full-time positions and has gotten a handful of interviews. Each time he has to explain his past.

"I don't know; it's real hard to try to explain away sexual assault. That's the worst part I hate is having to do an interview with a lady, knowing I committed a sexual assault against a lady," he said. "The reactions vary. You can tell the reaction. It's a difference I don't know how to explain it but you can tell.

"I just try to sell myself to the employer, let them know I am different. I won't, God willing, commit no crime, let alone a sex offense. I don't think that I'll ever do anything like that again. But on the flip side of that, I thought that before, and it happened," he said.

Minnesota has an unusually high number of recently released ex-offenders looking for jobs, because the state keeps people out of jail when possible. It ranks second to last among all states for its population of people in prison, according to a report published earlier this year by the Pew Center.

The report relied on numbers collected through the end of 2007. It found about 19,000 adults were incarcerated in Minnesota. That's 1 in 211.

At the same time, about 134,000 people in Minnesota were on supervised release. That's 1 in 30 adults. The Pew report said only three states have more people on probation or parole.

Keeping people out of jail makes economic sense: it costs much more to incarcerate, as opposed to putting someone on probation. But that means there's a greater public safety risk if the population's needs aren't met.

The vast majority of people on probation or parole in Minnesota live in the Twin Cities metro area.

"Well what does that really mean?" said Dennis Avery, director of adult reentry services for Hennepin County. "Well, it means in community corrections we are supervising offenders who in other states would be prison bound."

Avery said employment is one of the biggest factors in keeping people from committing crimes again and returning to jail, so a job can be a condition of probation or parole.

"A person with a job, a person with a place to stay and a person who's in a good relationship with their family, that's a person I want living next door to me," he said. "I don't want a person that's come out of prison that doesn't have any of those things living next door to me because that's a time bomb that's just ticking and waiting to go off. When you have nothing to lose, then why couldn't you revert to a life of crime?"

More criminals mean more victims. Without jobs, ex-offenders are more likely to commit crimes.

But everyone's having trouble finding a job right now. It's a bad time to need a second chance. Nation-wide unemployment is at a 26-year high.

Avery said unemployment for Minnesota ex-offenders usually hovers between 45 to 55 percent. A study of about 200 people on parole showed that rate may now be at 56 percent.

Sarah Walker is seeing those numbers play out. Walker is CEO of 180 Degrees, a Minneapolis residential program that works with ex-offenders. She also represents the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, a group of nonprofit leaders and justice system advocates.

"Anecdotally, what I'm hearing from ex-offenders is it is harder to find jobs," she said. "For me it's an issue of public safety. If the message they continue to be sent is you're never going to be employed, there are no opportunities out there for you, the incentive for them to participate in civil society is decreased. And that makes us all less safe."

When someone commits crime after crime, cycling in and out of prison, it's called recidivism. The state's data on recidivism ends in 2007. The recession began late that year. Before the recession, about a third of people with felonies returned to jail within three years.

University of Minnesota sociology professor Chris Uggen said it's probably going to get worse. That means crime rates go up.

"The statistics on recidivism are fairly stable and fairly grim," Uggen said. "We know that a good portion of those who are released are going to reoffend. My prediction would be that you'll be seeing more recidivism in all likelihood, although it all depends on how much support is there for folks."

Unfortunately that support is eroding. Most ex-offender service organizations depend on funding from foundation grants or state contracts. Those usually last for one or two years. So far, that timing has protected many groups during the recession.

But several of those grants and contracts are running out. Foundations are renewing them at lower funding levels or not at all, and state contracts are diminishing.

The impact is being felt hard.

The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, based in St. Paul, just cut its jobs program for 3,000 people re-entering society from prison.

Sarah Walker of 180 Degrees said nearly every organization that works with ex-offenders is struggling for funding. That includes juvenile shelters, churches, halfway houses and workforce training programs.

"I think really the largest effect of the recession is going to be in the decline in services," she said. "And we're going to see that trend across the board. Even programs that aren't entirely going away are going to be reducing services and reducing capacity."

There aren't many other places for ex-offenders to look for help.

Their families can't provide the support some used to; they're struggling because of the economy too. Many ex-offenders can't go to school, either because they don't have money for tuition or can't afford to stop earning money.

Halfway houses allow ex-offenders to stay for only 60 days. And it's tough for them to find an apartment, partly because many counties stopped providing ex-offenders with money for their first and last month's rent in a new apartment. Landlords felt more comfortable renting to ex-offenders when they knew those two months would be paid.

These barriers leave many ex-offenders with some pretty grim choices: a homeless shelter or prison.

And Terrence Blanton understands why someone would end up back in jail.

"I been through so many companies and filled out applications, and it's a let down to a degree because they say we're gonna call you, we're going to call -- and they never call," he said. "You call and check up and they haven't made up their minds yet.

"You have to really be strong because you can easily say I want to go back to street life and do that stuff. For the most part I just keep pushing. They say no, the next person says no, I just keep going. Somebody is going to say yeah."

Blanton heard back from the company and got the job he interviewed for. He would've been selling knives, but when he started orientation this week, they told him he'd have to buy the knives first, and he walked out.

So, he's still looking for a job.