Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt stepped forward Wednesday afternoon to describe why there's power in the word "hope."
Witt's office controls the HOPE Program, an initiative which connects formerly incarcerated people with education and resources to open more opportunities. Although the program launched a year before her tenure, Witt voiced support for the program's expansion during a kick-off event Wednesday.
"There's one common denominator when you think about repeat offenders, and that's that they have no hope. They don't think they deserve a better life, they don't know that they can have a better life," Witt said. "If we don't provide hope for people to think that they can do better, that they do deserve a second chance ... then we're just going to continue spinning our wheels doing the same thing over and over again."
Officials gathered next to Witt agreed that the new HOPE Hub could do just that.
The hub begins a partnership between the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and EMERGE Minnesota, a workforce development group with deep ties to neighborhoods in north Minneapolis and Cedar-Riverside. The Sheriff's Office and the Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCCR) will find and refer people who can benefit from the program and are currently incarcerated, leaving incarceration, or used to be incarcerated.
Program attendees are given training, stipends, tuition and other resources they might need to find work in construction, transportation, manufacturing and more. According to data provided at Wednesday's event, those resources make an impact. Officials said that 45% of Minnesotans coming home from incarceration will commit a crime again in the first year. But only 8% of people who have used EMERGE programming did the same.
Maj. Jason Gould traveled from the Genesee County Sheriff's Office in Flint, Mich., to applaud the HOPE Hub. The office created the model for the HOPE program, but Gould said that wraparound services are often missing in corrections departments. He believes such services can help people succeed when leaving incarceration.
"Sheriff's offices across the country are watching what's happening in Hennepin County right now," Gould said. "And when others see success like this, and make similar changes in their office, sheriff's [departments] become force multipliers — and then the culture change continues."
Work at the hub will be funded for a year by $225,000 in federal American Rescue Plan dollars, as well as a U.S. Department of Labor Grant. Although Witt said that many residents question why they would support incarcerated people, Nate Johnson sees value in the effort.
Johnson is executive director of FreeWriters, an organization that provides creative writing sessions for Minnesota inmates. He said the hub will be critical for helping incarcerated people to succeed, adding that many of them are smart, industrious, and looking for an opportunity.
"The infrastructure is in place in society for people to reoffend," Johnson said. "Instead of looking at our incarcerated population like a cancer, or a segment of society that we're all ashamed of and want to just forget about and punish, I think we should look at that population as a resource."