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Creating an Equitable Environment for Iowans to Live, Work + Play

Justice Reform Public Policy Issue Forum

October 26, 2021

An important part of my role, as director of Central Iowa Works at United Way, is bringing awareness to the issues facing those impacted by justice reform in our region. It was a pleasure to discuss issues around this topic with Jerry Evans, executive director of the 5th Judicial District Department of Correctional Services, and Dennis Henderson, coordinator at Broadlawns Medical Center, during the recent Public Policy Issue Forum on Justice Reform hosted by the Greater Des Moines Partnership and moderated by Kameron Middlebrooks with the Community Foundation of Des Moines.

Working to Lower Iowa’s Recidivism Rate

Iowa’s recidivism rate, or the number of people released from prison who return to prison, is higher than 38 percent. Evans talked about how those who find gainful employment with a sustainable wage are less likely to find themselves back in prison, and like many of us, benefit from pro-social people in the workplace. He also referenced the importance for those recently released to surround themselves with people who have the potential to bring a positive influence and keep them focused on a path to a thriving future. For those without the skills to find a good job, nonprofits can help fill the gap, finding opportunities to keep people out of the criminal justice system. One example is TECH & TEACH in Greater Des Moines (DSM), an apprenticeship program to address barriers to employment for those at highest risk of disengaging from school.

Henderson discussed policy changes at Broadlawns Medical Center aimed to help address recidivism. One he mentioned was a change to the Human Resources vetting process and recruitment for specific talent for certain jobs. Evans added the importance for employers and potential employees to gain each other’s trust. Employers need to be fair and equal. Potential employees need to prove they can effectively do the job.

Many barriers for those who have been previously incarcerated fall in line with those faced by people living in poverty — housing, transportation, child care and access to food. If someone doesn’t have access to these essentials, it will be much more difficult for them to be a stable employee. That’s where nonprofit assistance comes in. When people are experiencing one or more of the barriers listed above, a nonprofit can connect them with community resources to prevent these challenges impacting their ability to work. Nonprofits can also advocate on behalf of people who are returning to the workplace.

For many people previously incarcerated, they haven’t lived a life focused on their career — so they may not have an understanding of the expectations that come with a new position or the intention it takes to create a longer-term career out of a job. In getting support from nonprofits, they can work through business’ expectations, practice or learn specific skills and prepare to create a much more successful working relationship with their employers.

Second Chance Hiring

The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced the urgency for businesses, big and small, to hire employees. Previously incarcerated people should be in that candidate pool. Unfortunately, too many of them have (1) heard ‘no’ so many times they’ve dropped out of the long-term job search or (2) been underutilized in entry level positions because they just need to make money, pay bills and show employment to parole officers. Those reentering the workforce are missing out on opportunities that could lead to a better life for themselves, and their families. And businesses are missing out on potentially the best candidate for their open job. When businesses get involved in second chance hiring, they create a talent pipeline to help reduce recidivism and improve the entire DSM community.

Watch the entire webinar below:


If you’re interested in hearing more on public policy issues important to The Partnership, attend the next forum on inclusive economic development on Tuesday, Dec. 14.

The Partnership's Public Policy team engages with local, state and federal officials to create public policy that generates economic growth, business prosperity and talent development in Greater Des Moines (DSM). The Partnership is a nonpartisan organization.

Amber Ramirez

Amber Ramirez is the Central Iowa Works director at the United Way of Central Iowa. She's worked in workforce development for 10 years, leads the OpportUNITY Reentry Task Force and she also sits on boards for the Greater Des Moines Partnership Inclusion Council and the Iowa Literacy Council.