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Jul 17, 12:11 PM EDT

Iowa officials seek to help inmates with new certificate



DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Edward Roberson got out of prison three years ago after spending several years behind bars on a voluntary manslaughter conviction and found work handling glass for a window company.

That job was eliminated in April, and the 58-year-old Ankeny man has struggled to find work since, leaning on his faith, family and a support group to get by. He said it's no secret that many employers view former inmates like him as risky hires.

"It's known that we have a checkered past," Roberson said. "It should be known that we're positive and we've turned our lives around and we want to be productive."

State corrections officials are hoping to help former inmates find work by making it easier for them to show if they've learned valuable work skills while serving time. The state Board of Parole and Department of Corrections began the formal process of changing state code so that inmates will automatically receive certificates of employability for completing certain skills training in prison, instead of having to apply for such proof.

In fact, in the years that such certificates have been available, not a single inmate has ever completed the application form to get one, Steve Clarke, an administrative law judge for the parole board, told the joint Administrative Rules Review Committee at a meeting on Tuesday. He had no additional information but suggested that the process may be to blame and that he thinks automatically granting the certificates would streamline the process and help inmates.

"This makes it much simpler," he said.

Iowa's corrections system offers various educational opportunities to inmates, including the chance to get a high school diploma and complete college coursework. There's also a growing apprenticeship program with a separate certification that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The certificate of employability represents another way for inmates to highlight their work potential, said Sandra Smith, director of correctional education for the DOC.

"The employability certificate says, 'This is how I've utilized my time. So now in returning to the community, I am ready and have been provided an opportunity and this is my skill set and I'm employable,'" she said.

The proposed changes would require eligible inmates to either be registered in the apprenticeship program or complete other skills training, a portion of which is recognized through a national organization.

Some community leaders and attorneys who monitor employment issues involving former inmates applaud the effort, albeit with a degree of skepticism about how effective it would be.

Jo Whitney, a Des Moines attorney who specializes in labor and employment law, said she's represented companies that hire former inmates and that she's never heard of a certificate of employability. She thinks Iowa employers will have a lot of questions, since they consider possible liability issues when reviewing an applicant with a criminal history.

"(The certificate) has the potential to have some value, but because it's completely untried, I don't know how much value it would have to my employers," she said.

Kyle Horn is founder and director of Iowa Job Honor Awards, a nonprofit organization that tries to connect employers with disadvantaged jobseekers who have been vetted through workforce development agencies. He said it's a constant struggle for inmates to find work because of their criminal records. He said employability certificates could help, but that there would need to be an effort to educate employers so they would buy into it.

Horn said 90 percent of the roughly 8,000 inmates in Iowa prisons are expected to get out some day, and they'll need the chance to rebuild their lives as contributing members of society.

"What we need to ask ourselves as a society is, do we want to punish them forever by giving them basically a life sentence of unemployment?" he said.

The proposal, which does not require formal legislative action during the next session, could take effect by the end of the year. Smith said the concerns raised by Whitney and Horn are "right on the mark" and that it will be very important to get the word out about the certificate. She reiterated that corrections officials are committed to helping inmates secure work when they get out.

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