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Texas-sized dreams for leaving crime

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Texas has the fourth-highest state incarceration rate in the most incarcerated country in the world. Yet perhaps due to a desperate need to improve those statistics, the state has developed a program that is seeing remarkable results in reducing crime. The John Howard Society of Manitoba has modelled its own program based on that success.

Manitoba's recidivism rate is frustratingly high when compared with the national Canadian average; the youth reoffence rate hovers around 50 to 60 per cent and the adult rate is slightly less than 30 per cent. There is a national trend of reduced crime rates, but reducing the recidivism rate is key to reducing crime further and making communities safer.

Cleveland Texas Correctional Center, outside of Houston, has created an impressive program with a three-year recidivism rate that has fluctuated between five and seven per cent over the past decade. Corrections staff estimate the program has saved the state roughly $6 million yearly in reduced recidivism. Its prison entrepreneurship program (PEP) was designed to teach business skills to prisoners nearing release so they can start a small business or become self-employed. By comparison, the restorative-resolutions program we developed, that is now embraced by the Province of Manitoba, has a recidivism rate around 17 per cent.

The participants in this program were not educated, white-collar criminals with established backgrounds. Three-quarters of the most recent Texas class were arrested before the age of 18, one-third had at least one parent incarcerated during their childhood, slightly more than half have a high school education or equivalent, more than half committed violent offences, and most had been to prison two or three times. As well, entry into the program was difficult; only five per cent of the applicants are accepted. Yet the program's success was so impressive that in 2013, a partnership was created with the business school at Baylor University to offer graduates a certificate in entrepreneurship.

Since 2004, the program has seen more than 800 graduates, and more than 120 businesses have been started. The program's CEO says nearly all of its graduates were employed within 90 days of release. They become taxpayers, consumers and law-abiding citizens, and some even become employers who help to improve the state's economy.

Employment has been a key component in avoiding a life of crime. This program has been a bright light in an otherwise difficult state.

A willingness to accept responsibility for their past actions and a genuine desire to change are keys to the participant's success, program leaders say. This is a similar philosophy the John Howard Society of Manitoba follows, in our work with men charged or accused of crimes through various reintegration, literacy and bail-supervision programs. We know we cannot help those who have dedicated their lives to crime, but anyone who wants to try to make a better life is considered eligible for our help.

With the assistance of private funding, the John Howard Society is offering our own Beyond Bars Entrepreneur Program beginning at the end of January. It is available to men now involved with, or who have been through, the justice system. We have reached out to provincial and federal facilities, bail offices in Winnipeg and employment centres that work with offenders.

We did offer the course a couple of years ago in a limited capacity, with a little over a dozen graduates. Some were completing a court-mandated sentence and others had completed one within a few years. Today, some of those graduates are running their own businesses, and many of them became employed within the year.

By our own research, nearly all did not reoffend, which shows the lower recidivism rate is indeed achievable.

The Texas program is run like a university-level program. We are running it like a business college course, with a certified teaching instructor. Our course material was initially developed by a Manitoba entrepreneur, Boyle Buehler, who owned the fastest-growing company in Manitoba (2009) according to Manitoba Business Magazine. The course is free, with all materials supplied, and anyone who has been involved in the justice system, whether only charged or convicted in the past several years, whether incarcerated or serving time in the community, is welcome to apply.

During the course, guest speakers talk about their own experiences in starting a business. Participants learn about provincial laws and regulations and how to access loans and investment. At the end of the course, the participants take their business plans and present them in a Dragon's Den/Shark Tank format. Ideas can range from self-employed businesses such as snow-clearing, home renovations, landscaping and food service, or into small business start-ups to sell goods or services. The business ideas are only limited by the inspiration and drive of participants, who until now may not have been encouraged and lacked confidence to succeed on their own.

If we are a just society that truly believes in a second chance for those who are willing to work for it, you can dream as big as Texas itself, where it all began.

Dennis Trochim is the acting assistant executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 13, 2014 A9

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