Our View: Job training for inmates is money well-spent

Most felons don't have marketable job skills when they enter prison. Lack of career prospects, after all, makes one more likely to commit a crime. For far too many felons, their employment prospects don't improve much while they're serving their prison sentences. They have plenty of time to train for a new job, but the resources needed to provide that training are in short supply.

It's a vicious cycle. Upon their release, these former inmates not only lack skills but also must face employers who often are reluctant to hire someone with a felony record — and each rejection increases the likelihood that they will return to crime.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, a DFLer from Brooklyn Center who chairs the House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee, expects vocational training for inmates to be discussed during the next legislative session.

"The research is pretty clear," Hilstrom said. "When you get people an education, training and experience, they're much less likely to re-offend. That's the standard most aspire to, getting folks in prison the chemical dependency help they need, the other kinds of treatment and education they need to not recidivate when they get out."

A study released in April from the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that an inmate who obtained a high school diploma or GED in prison was 59 percent more likely to find a job after being released. Another study found that post-secondary studies, such as vocational training or work toward a college degree, reduced the risk of re-arrest by 14 percent and the risk of re-incarceration by 24 percent.


It's not like there is a shortage of jobs, especially in Minnesota. Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem said the Destination Medical Center expansion should provide opportunities locally for former inmates in construction trades, such as plumbing, carpentry, electrical and masonry. But they need training. "Once (offenders) start making a little bit of money, they can get housing," Ostrem said. "They can start paying their taxes. They don't need to revert to some of their roots."

Hilstrom said the support for vocational training corresponds to the business climate.

"When the economy is good, and everyone's working in those industries and they're in need of more employees, you tend to see more private partnerships with organizations coming in to do that kind of training," she said.

However, Rep. Steve Drazkowsi, of Mazeppa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee, wants to see more hard data before supporting legislation that would expand vocational education for inmates.

"I think you'll meet resistance to create another entitlement program for people who violate other people, especially without the proven, scientific evidence that it could be successful," he said.

Drazkowski also said there's an issue of fairness, using the example of a young person accumulating debt while going to college, while an inmate receives vocational training at public expense.

"One of the things we see over and over again is developing policy that rewards failure and punishes success." Drazkowski said. He also said some of his constituents have indicated their frustration that "we're creating these entitlements for people and a soft atmosphere in a situation that should be an undesirable place to be."

Yes, prison should be unpleasant, and we have no doubt it is. A few hours per day of training as a pipefitter or diesel mechanic won't turn a prison sentence into a stay at a country club. Nor can we envision someone deliberately seeking a prison sentence just to get a free education.


The bottom line is that convicted felons have two possible life-paths upon their release. They either get jobs and become tax-paying members of society, or they remain dependent on the state — and perhaps victimize other people on their path back to prison.

We know how much it costs to incarcerate someone for 20, 30 or 40 years. Perhaps we should spend a bit more in the first year or two on job training, in the hopes that years three to 40 are spent working, rather than lying on a cot in a taxpayer-funded prison.

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