Knowledge is power when it comes to living on the right side of the law. This is especially true for Minnesota’s formerly incarcerated who are forced to subsist on society’s sidelines, where the stigma of a criminal record commonly relegates the rehabilitated and impenitent alike.
The upcoming Minnesota Second Chance Coalition (MSCC) Resource Fair on April 24 seeks to capitalize on the age-old adage by providing access to resources to help those re-entering from the criminal justice system. In partnership with Goodwill Easter Seals of Minnesota, the event celebrates Second Chance Month where individuals and families can meet local providers and learn about programs to overcome reentry barriers.
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“They can’t take advantage of resources they don’t know exist,” said MSCC Board member Randy Anderson. “The idea of a resource fair is to help bring together a broad spectrum of community resources available for those who have involvement with or have been impacted by the [criminal] justice system,” said Anderson. “[Those resources include] employment providers, housing providers, treatment providers.
“The point of the fair is to show that there are resources, but they’re not easy to find. We hear people coming out of prison saying they don’t know resources exist. A lot of them feel they don’t have help and will resort back to their old behaviors.”
Anderson, who has a BA and is a licensed alcohol and drug counselor (LADC) as well as a criminal justice reform advocate, has been there. He served 87 months for drug possession.
Employers can well afford to pick and choose among prospective workers and flat-out refuse to hire someone with a blemished history. The unscrupulous can, in fact, in the guise of giving an ex-con a break, exploit him or her, paying poor wages, laying down harsh working conditions, and demanding excessive working hours.
Affordable housing is elusive for even the stably employed and practically unthinkable for those just out of prison. There is also the issue of getting or staying off drugs, chemical dependency being a health issue more realistically addressed with help for the addict or alcoholic rather than moral judgment.
But getting a fighting chance, Anderson acknowledged, is a great deal better than thinking you have no chance at all. “There’s a pathway that’s not easy and takes of lot work, but it is possible…to be successful.”
This is of great importance for Minnesota’s Black population that faces alarming racial disparities. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly 11 times the rate of their White counterparts.
But, the fair is by no means, a quick fix to a complex problem. A hurdle with which Anderson still contends is expungement, the court-ordered procedure by which the legal record of an arrest or a criminal conviction, while not destroyed, is sealed and erased in the eyes of the law.
“[It’s] a barrier I’ve run into, getting a professional license as an LADC, being disqualified by felony drug convictions,” he said. “I had to request a reconsideration to ask the Department of Human Services to have my criminal record set aside. Every time I go to work somewhere, I have to do a new [set-aside].”
He’s encouraged by the prospect of that being one less hoop through which the formerly incarcerated must jump. “Coalition partners wrote a bill that will go into effect in August if approved by the Senate and House and Governor Walz signs it. It would place into effect a traveling set-aside, which means if you’ve done one set-aside, and it’s approved, you won’t have to repeat the process. You won’t have to worry about it.”
Anderson is one of many MSCC board members who have been incarcerated or gone through the criminal justice system. “Our board of directors all are impacted and have faced barriers,” he said. “We’re trying to show people still impacted that there is help for them.”
Outside of the fair, the nonprofit coalition is made up of hundreds of nonprofit member organizations and individuals advocating for “laws, policies, and practices” for those who have paid their debts to society.
“The MN Second Chance Coalition has played a vital role in educating Minnesotans about the barriers faced by individuals with justice system involvement, advocating for administrative and legislative reforms and connecting advocates, community providers and impacted individuals,” Deputy Commissioner of Corrections Sarah Catherine Walker told the MSR via email.
“The Second Chance fair is a continuation of this work,” Walker said, “and while the coalition continues to make progress in stemming the tide of mass incarceration and supervision, the process of education, advocating and raising the voice of impacted individuals, must continue. We are in a moment where the energy for reform is high locally and nationally, but we will only make progress with these ongoing efforts.”
Anderson summed up, “We want to make more people aware we exist and of the work we’re doing.”
There will be information sessions at the fair on expungement and set-asides. Also planned is a screening of The Restoration Series: Jonathan’s Walk, a five-part documentary following one man as he re-enters his community after 15 years in prison.
The Minnesota Second Chance Coalition and Goodwill Easter Seals of Minnesota Second Chance Fair takes place April 24, 3 – 7 pm at 553 Fairview Ave. N. in St. Paul. The event is free and open to the public.