Posted 12/9/2013 12:00 am
In 2011, voters in Little Rock approved the city’s first sales tax increase in 17 years. City officials campaigned for the measure by providing the public with a detailed plan on how each dollar of the increased revenue would be spent.
Included in that budget was $4.5 million for building sidewalks, a feature that is usually the responsibility of the homeowner. While improved infrastructure was the focus of this section of the approved budget, an innovative program emerged that would do its part to keep people off the streets in other ways.
The sidewalks would lead Little Rock to win the 2013 Arkansas Business City of Distinction Workforce Development category for cities with populations of more than 20,000.
The Pilot Re-Entry Sidewalk Program began after city staffers started looking at ways to assist former convicts released from prison to gain employment. “We know that individuals, when they come out of the Department of Corrections, they come to Little Rock,” said Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore. Not only are there opportunities for fresh starts and second chances, but “if you decide on a path of criminal activity, it’s a little easier doing it in the big city than it is back in your hometown.”
The rate of recidivism in Little Rock is significant. For example, during the last half of 2012, 92 individuals were arrested in the city for burglaries or breaking and entering automobiles. Of those 92, 47 had a prior felony conviction and 26 had already been arrested that year.
The city was hiring ex-felons before the program, but Moore saw that more could be done to assist these men and women returning to society. “We would set aside a proportion for a re-entry type of concept,” said Moore. “Sometimes you have to help people develop a skill, so we decided to start with sidewalks.”
In May of 2012, the city of Little Rock’s human resources department began advertising for 10 positions in the inaugural program. It received 158 applications.
Once the 10 successful applicants were vetted, interviewed and hired, the public works department put them to work, providing daily supervision, direction and training from four full-time city employees. The participants were educated in general construction, sidewalk forming and sidewalk finishing. They worked for generally 40 hours a week and made $8 per hour. The department of community programs provided oversight and monitoring.
The results of the re-entry program have been outstanding. Among the 10 participants who started the program, all became proficient in the construction trades they were taught and successfully completed the six-month program. During the course of the program, not one participant was arrested or found to be in violation of their parole. One year after the program began, six of the original participants were still working with the city.
“If you had told me that we would have a 60 percent rate of individuals making it, I would’ve said we were successful.” said Moore.
The success of Little Rock’s pilot program has led the city to implement a full-scale program that includes pre-release services, post-release employment assessment and employment training workshops on resumé writing and interview skills. Applicants selected are eligible to receive six to nine months of paid employment training with various city departments such as Fleet, Housing & Neighborhood Programs, Parks & Recreation and Public Works. Some departments such as police, fire and some accounting jobs remain off-limits,
“I’ve directed all of the departments to identify potential positions,” said Moore. “It’s really trying to provide opportunities for people who want to be gainfully employed, who have made mistakes in the past, but are willing to change.
“Whether we like it or not, we have ex-felons in our communities. They’re trying to find a path where they can sustain themselves and their families.”
As a result, not only have Little Rock neighborhoods gained new sidewalks, but those footpaths have led some people to a more positive future.