Tag Archives: jobs for ex-offenders

Update: the good news and the bad news if you have a conviction

Other projects have kept me from posting on this blog as frequently as I’d like.  But I wanted to pass along some recent developments affecting those with criminal records.

 First the good news:

The pubic might not be as punitive as you think …

 In fact, Americans are surprisingly supportive of sentencing offenders to shorter-terms to reduce the high costs of incarceration. Some 91 percent of respondents to a recent survey on crime and punishment by the Pew Center for the States  said their bigger concern by far was reducing crime.   To the majority of folks, the time non-violent offenders spent in custody was less important than whether the system did a better job of  making sure that they didn’t  commit a new crime after their release.

So why the disconnect with the political rhetoric?  As the Crime Report aptly noted, for most Americans this issue is more personal than political.  Unfortunately, no politician wants to appear to be soft on crime — so supporting shorter sentences is often a non-starter.

On a related note, Virginia governor Robert McDonnell, has so far stuck to his pledge to  help restore voting rights to felons, helping more individuals than either of his predecessors  notes an article in Sunday’s Washington Post.   Currently,  some 300,000 people who have served time for felony convictions and remain unable to vote.   McDonnell’s office has so far approved 780 of 889 applications, and while the numbers aren’t huge, the governor has earned praise for the speed  at which he acted.

….but hurdles remain 

A  reader sent me a link to an interesting series of articles on a controversy in California.  Apparently,  revelations that a number of former felons, some with violent crimes in their past had been hired  to work as home health aides and caregivers for the elderly as part of a state program have caused quite a furor.

An inspection of employment records, which included background checks, identified 996 felons in the program and removed 786, including one person convicted of abuse and another of medicare fraud. A court ruling prohibited removal of  the rest saying their offenses don’t relate to the work they’re doing.

A good sign.  Obviously, I think the primary concern has to be protecting a possibly vulnerable population of individuals needing care.  At the same time, I’m wary of  witch hunts against people who have served their time and gone on to live law-abiding lives. As the story notes:

“We don’t want to put anybody at risk of abuse or theft, but sometimes your options of who you can get to work for you are very narrow,” said John Wilkins, a recipient of the services and co-chairman of a coalition of advocacy groups and unions.

Further, he said, “I’ve had two providers work for me who had criminal histories who were two of the best providers I have had. There is a lot of gray area. It is just not black and white.”

It a tough dilemma, and,  I hope that ultimately that each case can be decided on an individual  basis.  A couple of my students  have pursued jobs as home health aides after their release very successfully.  

 What do you think?   Is California being too lenient or too short-sighted?

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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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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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While I was out ….

Happy belated Independence Day!  There’s been so much going on  that I’m sorry to have been away. 

Now that I’m back, however, I’ll try to spend the rest of this week talking about what’s happening on the legislative front in terms of criminal justice reform and other measures to assist ex-offenders.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA)

On that score,  the first thing I wanted to direct your attention to is some terrific work being done by Representative  Bobby Scott (D, VA) to help offenders with some of the barriers faced in reentry.  Translation: he wants to do something to minimize the negative impacts of background checks. 

 On June 9, Scott chaired hearings on the topic and introduced  H.R. 5300, the “Fairness and Accuracy in Employment Background Checks Act.” If passed, this bill would require the FBI to update it’s woefully inaccurate database so that any arrest or conviction records use correct and up -to -date information.  As I’ve noted before, the FBI database is notorious for failing to note cases where charges were dropped, or a defendant was later found innocent.   This bill would require these records to be updated.   

I found all this information and even copies of the testimony before Scott’s committee in a recent update from the always thorough National Reentry Resource Center.  So check it out.

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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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Straight Talk: Blogger James E. Walker Jr. on the challenges of starting over

James E. Walker Jr.

I first got to know James Walker a couple of months ago, when he responded to a post I’d written on shame.  His response was so heartfelt, that I immediately clicked on the link to his blog.  There I found some very thoughtful commentary on reentry from a man who ought to know.  In 1977, Walker went to prison for what he describes as the worst crime imaginable.  In the midst of a robbery attempt, he killed a man.  Steeped in regret, Walker would spend the next 30 years of his life behind bars.  Though he knew he could never atone for what he’d done, when he was released three years ago at the age of 51, Walker felt he had little in common with the young man who’d made such an irreversible mistake. He’d worked to better himself and was ready to start fresh. And yet, his reentry has been far from easy.  As he confessed in a post earlier this year:

“Throughout my incarceration, I never could quite comprehend why so many guys returned to prison. Today, I know all too well why most of those who return to prison do so: the lack of real career opportunities. All the doors to financial stability and success–traditional or otherwise–seem not only closed but also locked. Dead bolted. Barricaded. Welded shut.”

In this month’s Straight Talk, Walker agreed to share his journey and how his expectations have differed from the reality of getting out:

Expectations vs. Reality

By James E. Walker Jr.

Two months shy of my 21st birthday and six months out of work, I got the foolish notion to become a stick-up man.  A neophyte to criminal behavior, woefully naïve and reckless, I botched the wrong-headed attempt at armed robbery, and a man died.

During the 30 years I spent in prison, I lived for the time when I would leave prison.  I believe that all prisoners spend their time in prison looking forward to the resumption of their life outside.  Some of us, though, for whatever reasons, seem to take our time more seriously.  I did.  I resolved early in my sentence that I would not allow my time to do me.

Time does the prisoner—instead of the prisoner doing time—when the prisoner takes no responsibility for the way he spends his days.  It happens when he serves his sentence as if doing time doesn’t bother him at all, as if it amounts to a mere inconvenience.  For sure, this occurs most often with folks serving relatively brief prison terms, but it also occurs with some of those doing longer sentences.

Many people around me wondered why I spent my time in school, in the library, or off by myself reading a book.  Why was I planning for a future that seemed to recede further and further and further from me?  The reason I never took my focus off my future was simple. I didn’t want to be consumed by my past behavior, and the netherworld of prison that resulted from that misbehavior.  Distraction from the goal of freedom, that grand ideal, would amount to a living death for which I had no desire.

And so I completed my bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, with a concentration in English. Knowing that my criminal background would restrict my career options, I began to think about innovative and creative ways I might succeed in navigating the expected obstacles to success.  I knew it would be difficult, but I expected that completing an undergraduate degree would impress prospective employers to take a chance on hiring me.  All the hard work I’d done to distinguish myself from the average prisoner, I thought, would likewise distinguish me from the average ex-con, once I left prison.  Why shouldn’t it?  Doesn’t our society continuously trumpet the value of higher education as the vehicle out of powerlessness, poverty, and disadvantage?

What I found upon getting released from prison, however, was something entirely different.  Indeed, my educational attainment and personal development, almost incredibly, intensified the rejection I experienced.  I quickly learned that our society has simply blocked many paths to career success for persons convicted of criminal offenses.  Even when no law prohibits career access, social norms often do.  In countless interviews, the repeated message seemed to be: your education, skill set, and eminently positive representation mean nothing.  You’ve got a felonious past—a violent one, at that.  Ain’t nothing happenin’!

In the past three years, I’ve been rejected and passed-over for everything from a part-time, minimum-wage pizza delivery job to a potentially six-figure insurance sales position.  The folks at the pizzeria wouldn’t even talk to me.  The recruiter at the insurance agency did engage the conversation, but I didn’t get the job.  An auto dealer refused to consider me because, he said, his insurance carrier just wouldn’t allow him to hire me.  A woman at another insurance operation told me I couldn’t get a license to sell insurance because of my criminal conviction.  When I demonstrated that, legally speaking, I could, she just ended the conversation.  The folks at a well-known parcel delivery service appeared quite impressed with my work history—until, that is, I explained that all of that job experience occurred in prison.  When a local reentry agency hired me as a case manager, I had to leave the job I had sought for two years after only two weeks, because the folks at a nearby prison won’t allow me entrance as a case manager—though they continue to allow me entrance as a volunteer.

The list goes on and on…

Yes, it’s been discouraging. I’ve spent time working with other ex-offenders, and often been able to help them in ways I haven’t been able to help myself.  I’ve watched as even my family has lost patience. The implication is that I, in some way, must not be doing the right things in order to find an employer willing to hire me.  Today, I no longer do walk-ins and cold calls.  I’ve stopped traveling significant distances to do applications.  I’ve stopped blasting my resume.  I’ve stopped applying for every possible opening.

I still selectively submit applications online.  I also continue to make disclosure of my background up front, usually via cover letter.  I couch that disclosure in the most constructive language possible.  I acknowledge responsibility for my misbehavior.  I do so clearly and genuinely.  I don’t wallow or grovel.  I acknowledge the past, then speak to my personal maturity and development, and look forward to the future with both confidence and humility.

Recently, I obtained a part-time position as a digital media marketing executive at a small information technology and services firm.  The position doesn’t pay very much, but I have an opportunity to demonstrate my value to the organization.  My co-workers have embraced me for the affability, intelligence, positive mindedness, and commitment to excellence they see in me.  They know I have a criminal past but have no real interest in the details of that past.  They genuinely like me, the person.  I don’t think I could have found a more supportive workplace environment.  My gratitude extends beyond all measure.

At the same time, I feel the need to keep bringing attention to the challenges faced by others like me.  Just as I rejected the correctional mindset during my imprisonment, I reject the predominant social mindset out here in the “free” society.  Something has to change. The chasm between our national pride as a land of opportunity, and our national perverseness in systemically rejecting and excluding persons who have made serious mistakes in the past—even after they’ve paid the legal price for those mistakes—spans deep and wide.

So does my determination to bridge it.

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Happy graduation: School’s out!

MyEmployability Skills  class just ended, so I’ll be taking a break until the new school year.   A break from teaching, that is, since I use some of my  downtime to research programs and issues that might be of interest to the formerly incarcerated and those who work with them.  

Next week, in addition to a Straight Talk guest post, from Cleveland, OH- based blogger and reentry advocate James E. Walker Jr., I’ll also be looking at the status of the “ban the box” campaign.  This is the initiative that has already successfully removed or is in the process of removing the question : “Have you ever been convicted of a felony? from applications in nearly 30 cities, states and counties. 

I’ll also be getting ready for the Community Reentry and Expungement Summit 2010.  It will be hosted by the Public Defender Service here in Washington, DC on June 30, and offer information on housing, vocational training, jobs and reentry services in the area.  Attorneys will also  offer legal advice on record-sealing and expungement, which is an area where I always receive questions.    I promise to report back on what I learn.  So stay tuned…..

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