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What Works: In Rural Tennessee, Ex-Offenders Get a Second Chance and a New Career

The Philadelphia Inquirer

By Jane M. Von Bergen

Scott Crago says everyone deserves a second chance. That goes for ex-criminals fresh out of jail.

Crago has heard all the tales of heartbreak in rural Tennessee — absent daddies, grannies raising babies, mamas dying young, drinking, drugs and what that all means for folks locked up in the Franklin County jail.

Sounds like a country-western song.

But Crago, as nice as he is, has a strong interest in welcoming ex-offenders onto his payroll at JSP International, a factory making parts for cars made in Tennessee and Alabama. Franklin County’s unemployment rate is 2.9 percent, making it hard to find help. Turnover is high.

So a coalition of folks came up with a simple plan to keep people from returning to jail. Ask employers like plant manager Crago what they need, listen, and supply them with workers trained to order, in this case, with industry-recognized certificates in injection molding and computer-machining fundamentals, both earned in jail.

The Middle Tennessee Rural Reentry Program effort is attracting attention.

Could it work in Philadelphia? Not as easily in the region’s diverse economy, although efforts are underway, said H. Patrick Clancy, who heads Philadelphia Works, the city’s workforce development agency. The city’s manufacturers, he said, would have to devise a set of basic skills applicable to all their workplaces and find a way to certify them. And they’d still have to agree to enroll and hire people released from prison.

In Franklin County, when reentry program graduates get out of jail, they head to the factory — neatly dressed, screened for drugs, resume in hand, ready to interview and begin working. Since January 2016, 61 have participated in the injection molding training and been released. And of those, only 16 have returned to jail — that’s 26 percent, compared to 80 percent, the county’s usual recidivism rate. The number is even lower for successful graduates, less than 10 percent.

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