For about five hours on Thursday, the Minnesota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights took testimony on the subject of “racial disparities in unemployment in the Twin Cities” at the University of St. Thomas Law School in downtown Minneapolis. And it painted a generally dismal picture.

This is one of a number of organizations and panels that has been holding meetings this year in the Twin Cities on data that shows that blacks are three times as likely as whites to be unemployed. This is the worst record in the nation, according to several studies. I wrote a front page story on the problem back in March.

Mark Brinda, workforce manager for the city of Minneapolis employment training program, noted that while unemployment for blacks exceeds 20 percent, American Indian unemployment is close to 25 percent. “Simply put, a large part of our community is not engaged in the economy, which in turn, contributes to and reinforces other disparities.”

He noted that white residents in Minneapolis have three times the per capita income as black, American Indian and Hispanic residents, and 2.5 times the household income as blacks and American Indians.

There are giant education disparities as well, he said. “We find 78 per cent of the white population has some college, an associate degree of bachelors or higher. However, only 42 percent of blacks, 45 per cent of American Indians and 25 per cent of Hispanics have more than a high school diploma.”

Brinda says this is “essentially locking more than 50 per cent of each of these community’s members from accessing good paying, family sustaining employment; allowing access to only entry level, unstable unemployment; often employment that lacks health coverage or retirement benefits.”

Pam Alexander, president of the Council on Crime and Justice, had some strong language, too. Alexander is a former Hennepin County district judge. She told the advisory committee that “Minnesota is in a state of perpetual punishment.” She said that Minnesota now has the 8th highest percentage of adults on some form of correctional control, a 278 per cent increase in the per capita rate since 1982.

Alexander hastened to add that she did not hesitate to punish offenders when she believed it was appropriate, but she became increasingly concerned when defendants called her after her sentence was complete and told her about the difficulties they were having finding jobs and housing.

“I became concerned not just about the injustice of this situation, but about its implications for public safety,” she said. “Ex-offenders who find stable employment and housing are much less likely to reoffend.”

She said there was a need to “reverse the trend of simply increasing the length and severity of punishment.” And she also called for more programs to help ex-offenders in finding employment, housing and mental health and substance abuse treatment.

The committee is expected to prepare a report in a few months and make recommendations about what to do.

Martin Castro, chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, sat through the hearing.

Asked what he thought about racial disparities locally, Castro told me, “It’s bad everywhere, but Minnesota, statistically is worst in the nation. What I’m hoping is that we will learn what are some of the causes and what are the solutions.”

He said that could be helpful for both Minnesota and for communities across the country. “It cannot be one size fits all, a one-dimensional solution,” Castro said.