Fourth-grade students from across Wisconsin visit the lieutenant governor's Capitol office throughout the school year. In the office, a wooden box displays all the challenge coins I’ve been given. There are coins representing military, fire and police, each a reminder of the sacrifices they make to keep our families safe. But a second storyline is built into the display case itself, which was hand-crafted by inmates at Waupun Correctional Institution thanks to Badger State Industries.
Just like we need police officers to keep us safe, we can also improve the security of our communities by giving our inmates the training that leads to good, well-paying jobs. I appreciate the excellent reporting by Lisa Speckhard Pasque on the skills education opportunities offered to Wisconsin’s prison population. This is an issue that I’ve worked on for a number of years now, and I’m pleased by the significant progress we’ve made, though I know there are still capacity issues we must address.
Here’s the bottom line: Unemployment is hovering around 3 percent in Wisconsin. As the Wisconsin State Journal has recently reported, the worker shortage facing employers across our state is reaching a crisis point. But that crisis creates opportunity, because employers are more open than ever to hiring nontraditional workers if they’ll show up, do a good job, and stick with it. So now more than ever is the time to make major progress in getting ex-offenders into the workforce.
As Lisa wrote in her story, we’re up to 24 certificate or college credit programs offered by technical colleges in our prisons. And though it’s easiest to do in the minimum-security setting, we’re increasingly offering more academic opportunities in our medium-security facilities through mobile lab classrooms.
We know we need more seats and slots to train inmates for high-demand skills. That’s one reason I’m so proud of Gov. Walker’s 2017-19 executive budget, which makes significant new investments in our workforce overall and our prison population in particular. This includes $2 million in new funds to expand Windows to Work and other vocational training programs, and $1.1 million to add additional mobile classrooms for medium security institutions.
We’re also putting more than $430,000 behind a trauma-informed approach to formerly incarcerated men in Milwaukee plus $660,800 to add new counties to the Opening Avenues to Reentry Success program. We recognize that a job is an essential first step, but it must be paired with stable housing and a strong support network that prevent a return to the habits and associations that lead to criminal behavior.
In his address introducing the budget, the governor said, “We also propose expanding career and technical training in our correctional facilities to help transition offenders into the workforce. A good job is one of the best ways to keep people from re-entering the system.” I couldn’t agree more. That’s why we’ve made these commitments in past budgets and expanded them this time around. I’m grateful to Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher and our partners in the technical colleges, as well as employers who are keeping an open mind about offering inmates a second chance. Working together as a state, we can meet the needs of employers, create new taxpayers, and make our communities safer and stronger.
Rebecca Kleefisch is Wisconsin's lieutenant governor.
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