Category Archives: hope for ex-offenders

The fear factor

When it comes to getting over the emotional hurts of failure, it really doesn’t matter how good or bad your personal history is. The only thing that matters is that you face your fear and get moving.       — John C. Maxwell, author

freefall2

Too often, the biggest barrier to making a change or taking a positive step in life is that other F-word. FEAR. It doesn’t matter whether you’re starting over after serving time, regrouping after a divorce or simply trying to get a new project (or long-neglected blog) up and running.

I was reminded of this last night as I sat with a group of 8th graders who will be making their confirmation in our local Catholic church this May.  My role as discussion leader was to go around the circle and have each teen share something that scared them.

As you might expect, there was plenty of nervous laughter. I also got a few shrugs and attempts to change the subject.  One girl pecked away at her cellphone as if she might find the answer there. But nobody wanted to volunteer that they were afraid of anything.  God forbid. It was easier to talk around it or challenge the need to even discuss the subject.

Finally, just when I was despairing we’d spend the rest of our time in silence,  a boy I’ll call Andy spoke up.   “Spiders,”  he said.  “They creep me out.”

The other teens laughed and the tension was broken. Suddenly our circle awash with fears. Bugs. Snakes. Heights. One boy even confessed to being terrified of getting run down by a car.  Sure, these weren’t likely their deepest, darkest fears, or the one they would never voice — looking foolish in front of each other. But at least these kids were sharing something and learning they weren’t alone.

Afterwards, the event moderators upped the stakes by asking for volunteers for a series of “Fear Factor” type challenges.  Teens competed to eat bowls of repulsive-looking “mystery” food.  Some ran an obstacle course with dog biscuits or smelly fish in their mouths. Two girls picked live bugs out of jars of candy. By the end of the night, Andy, from my group, was up in front of more than 100 of his peers, racing to finish off a suspicious-looking green goo and whipped cream pie.

This all happened over the course of about twenty minutes with a group of self-conscious 13 and 14 year olds.  That’s what got me thinking about John C. Maxwell’s quote above.  Maxwell, who’s written two dozen books on leadership and  maximizing your potential, has spent years studying the secrets of successful people.  In his bestselling book, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, he advocates learning from your errors, but leaving them in the past. Too many people become mired in replaying their failures and unable to move forward.  The only way to get over your fear, he says, is to take action.  Even if it’s just one small step towards your objective.

So what one step can you take for your future today?  Is it making a list of employers?  Going to a 12-step meeting? Following up with your friend about that potential part-time job? Researching degree requirements at the local community college?  Taking your sister up on her offer to watch the kids so you can visit your local employment center?

Whatever that step is, try to handle it like my teens eventually did.  Acknowledge your fears, but don’t fret.

Just do it.

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Hope for ex-offenders: increased focus on justice reform puts spotlight on reentry

It’s unlikely that it made any of  the 2011 trend lists.  But it should have:

What’s Out : Being tough on crime by throwing people in prison.                                             

What’s In:   Being smart about crime by putting serious offenders behind bars and finding alternative and more cost effective punishments for nonviolent offenders.

It’s true.  For the first time in more than thirty years, we’ve got both the left and the right calling for a more sensible way to deal with crime in the U.S.   Two years after Senator James Webb,D-VA  became the lone wolf decrying the nonsense of the U.S. imprisoning people at a rate five times the world’s average, even conservatives have embraced the need to do something to repair a costly and ineffective system that doesn’t make us any safer.

I’ll admit I was a little skeptical when I first started reading about  Right on Crime, the conservative organization backed by such Republican luminaries as Newt Gingrich, William Bennett and Grover Norquist.   After reading their proposals, however, I’m encouraged that a platform being advanced by the folks who usually campaign to lock up lawbreakers no matter the cost, may actually lead to some real change.   For one, they make no bones about laying out what the problem is and how we got to our current state of diminishing returns:

Under the incarceration-focused solution, societies were safer to the extent that dangerous people were incapacitated, but when offenders emerged from prison – with no job prospects, unresolved drug and mental health problems, and diminished connections to their families and communities – they were prone to return to crime.

All of this, is of course, true, and something that most people can agree on regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.  Obviously, the reason we’re looking at it now is primarily budgetary.  It’s just too expensive to put so many people in prison.  But if that can spur reform, I’ll take it.

One of the provisions I’m most intrigued about is the conservatives desire to deal with the whole issue of negligent hiring suits, which make so many employers reluctant to hire parolees.   Reducing the potential risk of such lawsuits could  go a long way towards bringing down recidivism, since people with jobs are less likely to commit new crimes.   The challenge is to see whether this will change how employers behave in a labor market with double-digit unemployment.  

In two recent New York Times opinion pieces, author Tina Rosenberg also emphasized that” prisoner re-entry has become a hot topic in the field of corrections, largely because of the increasing number of people being released (many as states cut back on budgets).  She also did a great job of describing the challenges faced by returnees and describing the patchwork nature of reentry programs — highlighting a few like the renowned Delancey Street residence in San Francisco and Fortune Society’s Fortune Academy (known as “The Castle”), which work.  There’s also a piece here citing programs in states like Michigan, that have been successful in helping ex-inmates find jobs. 

What do you think is going to happen in terms of criminal justice reform?   Earlier this month, Senator Webb and The Prison Fellowship sponsored a symposium at George Mason on “Undoing the Effects of Mass Incarceration.”  The State of Louisiana recently announced it’s going to take the plunge to reform it’s prison system.  Will this all be a lot of talk or will/can the country follow suit?

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Filed under alternatives to incarceration, companies hiring ex-offenders, hope for ex-offenders, prison reform, probation and parole, reentry, Uncategorized

Take a journey of hope

Today I’m over at Journey of Hope,  talking with host Rodney Mathers about, among other subjects:

  • Answering tough interview questions
  • How to handle gaps in your resume
  • Whether recent discrimination lawsuits and action by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will make it easier for people with criminal records to get a job.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the site, Journey of Hope is a terrific weekly podcast that deals with issues affecting ex-offenders.  Mathers started the program after he was released from prison and learned just how difficult it was to start over. His goal was to help others in this situation by offering somewhere they could  turn for help and encouragement.  On previous shows he’s dealt with everything  from job scams that target ex-felons to finding financing for further education or to start a business to dealing with the stresses of reintegration.

It’s a great resource, so check it out.  You can hear my interview here.

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Helping women start over….

 I was happy to see  the National H.I.R.E. Network  devoted its 5th Annual Policy  Conference last week  to one of the most overlooked groups of ex-offenders.

You guessed it  – women.

The advocacy organization, which is dedicated to helping individuals with criminal records,  focused some much needed attention on the fact that , as I’ve noted, women face unique challenges in starting over after incarceration.  At the same time, most reentry programs and efforts are devoted to the needs of the men.   There’s a lack of understanding about the female experience behind bars, as well as what their needs are after release.   There’s also a stigma.  

I also think H.I.R.E. came up with some interesting  recommendations for change:

Within facilities

  • Improved discharge planning, including reinstating Medicaid and obtaining a state identification card and birth certificate prior to release.
  • More higher education opportunities for women.
  • Placement for mothers within reasonable distance from children to encourage visitation.
  • Improved medical and psychiatric care, and an increase in trauma-informed corrections and service provider staff.

Reentry

  • A shorter, less-invasive process for securing a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct.
  • Improved communication between criminal and housing courts to reduce problems women have trying to reunite with their children upon reentry.
  • More transitional and affordable housing; too often women manage to reunite with their children only to wind up in a shelter.

Readers, how about you?    Are there any services you’ve seen that have helped women?  Anything you would add?

By the way, you can more about the conference here.

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Another employer who gets it…

I’m caught up with other projects this week, but would be remiss in not posting this story about Eric Smith, a carpenter in St. Paul, Minnesota who has no qualms about hiring people with criminal records.  Why?  It’s been his experience that if a  person is hardworking and good at what he does, his background has no relevance to the job. Smith says:

I tend to hire people I like personally — no indicator of talent, but I have to spend a lot of time with them. I’ve discovered over the years that I’m drawn to people who have a little bit of darkness in them — people who have peeked over the edge, maybe even gone over it, at some point in their lives.

People with this kind of background are not uncommon in remodeling, probably because it’s one of the dwindling number of mentally challenging careers that require almost nothing in the way of qualifications except a strong back, common sense and a willingness to work hard.

For people who’ve been unable to fit into standardized corporate slots, or haven’t passed the tests or graduated at the top of their class, construction can offer a rare second or third chance.

I love the wisdom in this.  You can read the whole story here:  The Healing Power of Construction Work

Enjoy!

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Can you really erase your record?

I’ve alluded before to the fact that getting a conviction expunged doesn’t  guarantee you’ll come up clean in a background check.  Often, it takes no more than a Google search to find news of an arrest or sentencing, while some  government databases can still carry this  information well after an individual has gone to the trouble and expense to get his/her record sealed. 

Now some legislators in Ohio are trying to change that.  A bill introduced by Sen. Shirley Smith (D-Cleveland), would not only enable ex-offenders to get their records cleared after 5 years.  According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch, the new law would also:

1. Require individuals and private businesses to erase the historical record by destroying “records” they hold about the convictions of those whose cases are sealed.

2.  Require individuals, newspapers and other news media to delete stories from the Internet and their archives about the arrests and convictions of those who win expungement orders.  This, or face fines and/or damages from $250,000 to $1,000,000. 

Although the bill seems like a bit of a reach —  particularly in its attempt to get media organizations to delete the historical record — it does shed light on the  difficulties of starting over, even if you play by the rules.  My take:  People with criminal records who have had their records supposedly sealed, should not then have to have them used against them just because the information remains in the public record.

The question is whether a bill like this is the way to address it.  What do you think should be done?

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Criminal background checks under fire: an update

The discrimination lawsuit alleging the U.S. Census Bureau inappropriately used  arrest records for  job screening continues to heat up.  

On August 5, attorneys filed an amended complaint against the Commerce Department noting that  the EEOC had warned the Census Bureau in advance that its hiring procedures could result in “massive” racial and ethnic discrimination.  In seeking to fill more than one million temporary jobs earlier this year,  the Census Bureau subjected all applicants to an FBI records check and required that  they provide written proof of the dispositions for any arrests or convictions.

 Although people with criminal records are not specifically protected under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, using such criteria to deny employment has been found to have disparate impact on certain protected groups, and is therefore discriminatory. 

In the lawsuit, which was brought by a coalition of civil rights organizations,  attorneys allege that  African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans who applied for Census jobs were at a disadvantage, since since these ethnicities experience a disproportionate number of arrests relative to their populations in the U.S.

Ironically, under the Census Bureau’s hiring  procedures some applicants who actually worked during the 1990 Census were denied jobs this time around.  Due to the ease of background checks, this also has become a problem in private industry, as laid off individuals – many of whom have been working productively for years –  find old offenses coming back to haunt them in their job search.  

As I wrote earlier, the EEOC is working to come up with new guidelines regarding the  use of criminal records in screening.  In general, employers are barred from using blanket bans and  should be taking into account whether an offense relates to the work being done, as well as the individual’s suitability for the job.  It may be justifiable, for example, for a company to decline to hire someone convicted of theft or embezzlement as an accountant or cashier. It’s less defensible to use an arrest record as a reason not to hire someone for such a job because they were  convicted of a drug or alcohol charge, particularly if they’ve completed treatment and remained clean.

Let’s hope the EEOC comes out with something in writing soon.   Perhaps these new guidelines  might be more difficult to ignore.

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Just out: a nationwide guide to reentry programs

If you’re looking for help starting over, you might want to check-out this great new guide reentry programs.

The searchable database was the brainchild of  the Council of State Goverments Justice Center with support from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA.

The goal of new online Reentry Programs Database is to provide a comprehensive catalog of  initiatives to help former adult and juvenile offenders and those with criminal records.  It’s a great idea, and the CGS is enoucraging agencies to update their data so that users will be able to locate the most current information on reentry.

When I took a look at the guide this past week, it was simple enough to search by entering your city and state and the type of assistance you were seeking.  The idea is very similar to a resource offered by the National Hire Network, which also offers a state-by state listing of reentry and other helpful resources.

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Employers, what will it take to get you to hire ex-offenders?

The federal agency that supervises offenders on probation and parole in Washington, DC  isn’t going to tiptoe around this question anymore.  Instead, at a time when a bad economy has made finding a job with a record even more difficult, officials at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency have started flat-out asking employers whether they’d consider bringing a former offender on board, and if not what might be done to change their mind.

It’s all part of a new media campaign designed to bring awareness to the fact that not everyone with a criminal record is the same.  On any given day, the CSOSA’s Community Supervision Program is actively responsible for more than 16,000 offenders, many of whom are alcohol and drug-free, skilled, employment- ready and have put their past behaviors well behind them, says Leonard Sipes, the agency’s senior public affairs specialist.  Yet, only about 53 percent of those individuals are currently working — a statistic CSOSA aims to improve by confronting the issue head on.

” There’s a certain point where you’re not going to make an omelet unless you  scramble some eggs,”  Snipes said.  “So we decided to take a risk.    What do we have to lose by trying and giving businesses a voice? Sure, some will be harsh and negative, some will stereotype – but if  we don’t engage in this conversation things will stay the same.  Hopefully by doing this we’ll  open the doors for one person to get hired and then maybe for two more the next time and build from there.”

The CSOSA will run video and radio interviews with employers on  its website and YouTube.   While some employers have been encouraging,  many  have told Sipes that they simply don’t want to hire ex-offenders because they’re worried about having to deal with trouble.  “They want ironclad guarantees that the person will show up and do the job without creating problems,” he says.

Often, the companies want CSOSA to stay involved with the individual, so its caseworkers can help handle any situations that might arise.  Typically, the agency will refer only the most employment ready, mature and reliable individuals in order to avoid such problems, but they are willing to work with the employer to help ensure things go smoothly.  It’s in everyone’s interest, Sipes says, since studies show getting offenders back to work reduces recidivism and improves  public safety.  Employers who hire ex-cons can also take advantage of incentives, including  tax credits and federal bonding.

What can ex-offenders do to improve their chances?  Feedback to CSOSA so far indicates most employers are simply looking for someone with a good attitude.  Skills aren’t always as important, as they will often teach the right person, Sipes notes.  “If you  present well and  can say, ‘ I’m going to be here every day and I’m going to be a benefit to your company and all I need is an opportunity,’ —  a lot of people caught up in the criminal justice system have a hard time expressing that, but that’s what employers want to hear.”

It will be interesting to see what bringing this conversation to the surface will do.  Readers, how about you?  If you know companies that hire or don’t hire ex-offenders, what are their reasons?  Do you think more employers can be convinced to give former felons a second chance?

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Ex-offenders: reducing the “fear factor”

I came upon great article about a community program in Enid, Oklahoma that helps ex-offenders get back on their feet.  Like most reentry organizations, this one aims to assist newly released individuals in getting their documents in order and obtaining housing and employment.

What’s unique about the Enid Community Re-entry Initiative Committee is the way they’re trying to achieve this.  Their goal is to have a mentor for every returning felon.  By providing one-on-one support, notes, EEOC supervising case manager Mitzi Maddox, these mentors could play a direct role in  helping reduce recidivism.  This would also go a way towards reducing the stigma of incarceration.

“Instead of being scared (of the inmates), we want the community to get the idea of helping them,” Maddox said.

 

Personally, I love this idea of matching people one to one.    Obviously, it wouldn’t work in every case — people have to want to change. But given that we have 9 million ex-offenders being released from jail annually and 700,000 offenders coming out of state and federal prisons, imagine the impact even a little success would have.

At OAR Fairfax, the non-profit where I volunteer, caseworkers have found that “without employment and supportive relationships, an ex-offender’s likelihood of success is greatly limited. ”  I’ve met some of these offenders in my classes; people whose relationships are unhealthy or abusive, people who have lost contact with their family, or been ostracized by them, people who never have visitors and are terrified of their release because they have nowhere to go and no one to support them.  Many times, these individuals seek out mentor relationships while they’re still serving their sentences.    Until recently, the OAR mentor program only extended through the course of the person’s stay in the adult detention center, but now OAR is extending the mentoring relationship so that it continues for the first year after release.

I think that can only help.  In my classes I encourage students to seek out mentors, wherever possible.   I’ve also had the privilege of being a mentor, and can tell anyone considering volunteering in this way that it is extremely rewarding.   I still keep in touch with my mentee on an informal basis and value our relationship.

In previous posts, former offenders have commented on the loneliness offenders feel upon release and the sense of being different — an attitude that can if taken to an extreme lead to isolation, depression and too often, re-offending.    Ernest McNear, a pastor in Philadelphia, summed up the value of a mentor best when talking to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“If you are going to have successful reentry you have to have someone welcoming you into the community, not just a program.”

How about you?   Has anyone had anyone had a mentoring experience they’d like to share?  Was it helpful?  If so why?  If it didn’t work, why not?

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