Breaking the cycle

Out of prison, out of a job, out of luck. It can seem hopeless, but hope exists.

December 04, 2005|By JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS | JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore and other cities across America are losing an important economic struggle that accompanies their war on crime.

Every year, hundreds of thousands are released from prison nationwide with criminal records that make it difficult to land a job. In Maryland, nearly half are convicted of another crime within three years.

The total number behind bars is mounting steadily nationwide. When the lost personal income and tax revenues are added to the expense of caring for all of these felons in prison, the economic toll is staggering. The social costs of missing parents, siblings and children are rising too - and the lack of a job plays a part.

"If you're constantly being turned away, it becomes frustrating and depressing," said Brenda Jennings-Queen, 44, who is thankful that assault charges did not keep her from landing a job helping city residents with records find jobs of their own. "It's a vicious cycle that needs to be broken. We cannot continue to do things this way."

Bit by bit, locally and nationally, community leaders are beginning to agree. The thought of nearly 650,000 people leaving the nation's prisons every year, many destined to be arrested again, is prodding political and civic leaders to try something new.

Congress recently held hearings on the Second Chance Act of 2005, which would earmark roughly $100 million for re-entry programs meant to ease the transition back to the community, including employment. Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, is among those who have testified in support.

A national media campaign to jump-start discussion about re-entry, which will conclude at the end of next year, included a documentary shown on PBS this fall that followed two Baltimore men as they left prison with hopes of staying out for good.

And there has been a flurry of locally based efforts: a city job center retooled to focus on ex-offenders, the only one of its kind in the country. A newly created liaison position to link the state's work force development and corrections systems for the first time. A survey to gauge employers' attitudes about hiring applicants with records. A brainstorming session to create an employability certificate for people who have made an effort to turn their lives around.

`Unprecedented'

"This is unprecedented, in my mind," said Bernie Antkowiak, who oversees work force development in Maryland. His division will begin recruiting for three new ex-offender-related positions this month, including the liaison job.

Antkowiak also sits on the Governor's Workforce Investment Board's new "challenged population" committee, which has started its work with a focus on ex-offenders. Its membership includes major employers.

"I've never seen the kind of interest in ex-offenders that we're getting from the private sector, never before," he said. "It's now becoming an economic issue. Back when we were dealing with it in the '70s and '80s, it was a social issue."

Even so, advocates say it remains a tricky issue.

Some employers will consider applicants with records; many won't. Though the state's strong economy has forced employers to take another look at how - and whom - they hire, ex-offenders have struggled in the face of increased security rules after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"More employers are doing background checks, and oftentimes they just ... are making sweeping bans," said Roberta Meyers-Peeples, co-director of the National HIRE Network, a New York advocacy group that presses for better job opportunities for people with criminal records.

Said Felix Mata, project director for Baltimore's ex-offender initiative: "Sept. 11 has actually been the greatest obstacle for ex-offenders to get connected to employment and services."

New opportunities

Many of the jobs being added to Maryland's employment base are in service industries, which are traditionally wary of applicants with records. The dwindling number of jobs in manufacturing - a sector more willing to hire ex-offenders - has only added to the pinch.

But some doors have opened as others have closed.

"With the city going through a major renaissance, the construction trades are really fair game at this point," said Moses Hammett, director of work force development for the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development in Northwest Baltimore, which helps residents - including ex-offenders - find work.

Opportunities are critical. The numbers tell the story: Last year, 10,000 state inmates returned to the city, Mata said. Nineteen thousand residents were being supervised by parole and probation. Police made more than 100,000 arrests. And that doesn't begin to count the people released from federal prisons, leaving local jails or dealing with years-old convictions.

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