Own Your Future Colorado gives ex-offenders like Seth Lee another chance

"I'm a welder and a family man, and I tell you, that feels pretty great," says Seth Lee. It sounded pretty great, too, as this welder/family man stood before a crowd gathered today in the Capitol to talk about how far he's come since that day in 1998 when he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to prison for 25 years -- "longer than I'd been alive." But as it turned out, the challenges for Lee didn't end when his sentence was served. He needed to learn how to survive on the outside, too. "There are so many barriers once you leave prison," he says.

OwnYourFutureColorado.com is designed to remove some of those barriers.

The website is a project of the federally funded College in Colorado, which started out helping middle- and high-school students plan for higher education, and has since expanded its programming to include help for all Coloradans -- including those who are incarcerated in Colorado.

As Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia (who also happens to be executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education) explained at today's announcement, Own Your Future Colorado is designed to give ex-offenders the tools they need to survive on the outside. Colorado releases up to 900 inmates every month -- and every month, Garcia said, about 300 return to prison, most for parole violations rather than crimes.

Colorado has the third-highest recidivism rate -- 52 percent -- in the country, Garcia noted. Own Your Future Colorado could help cut that rate down by providing a framework for former prisoners to follow. It leads users through a series of steps designed to help them find housing, transportation, jobs, education and career training.

The steps sound simple, but they can be endlessly complicated to someone who's spent years behind bars.

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Own Your Future Colorado, which was funded in part by a Colorado Division of Criminal Justice grant (no state monies were used), is dedicated to Tom Clements, the former head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, who was killed by a felon out on parole in March; his wife, Lisa, was in the audience today. "Tom had a strong belief in second chances," Garcia said.

OwnYourFutureColorado.com will help give ex-offenders that second chance. The actual origins of the project date back eighteen months, as College in Colorado pulled together all the materials for the website and then designed its structure -- a tricky prospect, since many ex-offenders have never used a cell phone, never used a computer, never experienced the "mythological Internet I'd heard about for years," as Lee says.

Want to experience the site for yourself? Go to OwnYourFutureColorado.com and listen to Seth Lee and other ex-offenders talk about the difficulties they faced -- and the promise of this remarkable new program, which is unique to Colorado.

More from the Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Even through a long prison stay, this mentoring relationship stayed strong."

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