Positively, ex-offenders can start new lives

December 14, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Since last week's column on the new Baltimore Truck Wash and its ambition to hire up to 60 ex-offenders, the phones have been ringing steadily again, both here on the Jobs-For-Drug-Dealers Desk (410-332-6166), and at the city's Northwest Re-Entry Center (410-523-1060).

That's a good thing, and not surprising.

Thousands of men in and around Baltimore have criminal records that keep them from getting jobs. It's not the only reason they relapse into selling drugs and snatching purses - some have zero ambition to go straight and be productive - but it's a major factor in a dreary cycle that presents a constant threat to public safety, ruins neighborhoods and destroys families.

There should be no surprise that so many drug offenders, in particular, fail at re-entry. Most never receive treatment while incarcerated in our state prisons and local detention centers, and they are mainly clueless to the barriers they face after release, particularly when it comes to employment.

"When they were incarcerated, they had a place to sleep, eat, medical, and a number of other services," says Felix Mata, who runs Baltimore's Ex-Offender Initiative. "After release, you are now on your own. If you had a substance abuse problem, you may have destroyed relationships with family, friends and others who could have helped you in your return. And, thus, you turn back to the same thing you did before and start self-medicating."

Still, if they do the right thing - get into drug treatment, register with one of the handful of nonprofit or government agencies that really know how to help prepare them for jobs - ex-offenders can get on the right track and make their mamas proud.

But what they need, probably more than anything else, is Big A - serious and positive Attitude.

Don't take it from me.

Take it from the vice president of a Baltimore County manufacturing company that hires ex-offenders regularly, despite the challenges they present.

"We hire for attitude," says Mr. Veep, a name I've given him for the purpose of this column. (He asked that neither he nor his company be identified in print, expressing concerns common among executives who hire ex-offenders.)

"I can teach just about anyone how to do any of our jobs, but I can't teach anyone to be a reliable employee with a positive attitude. That's something that they have to work out on their own. If their attitude is good, their attendance is good and they learn their jobs well, there's opportunity here. Many, however, don't take advantage of the opportunities that we offer."

Mr. Veep's company offers entry-level jobs with medical and dental benefits after 30 days, a 401(k) after 180 days, and tuition reimbursement and two weeks' vacation after one year.

"Most of all, we offer advancement," Mr. Veep says. "Many of our employees have been here over 10 years; two have been here over 30."

Agencies that work with ex-offenders will refer prospective employees to him. If Mr. Veep gets six referrals, this is what he says typically happens:

"One doesn't show up for the interview. One is interviewed, but is not offered a position. One is offered a position, but declines the position - or accepts the position, but does not report to work. The other three are hired, and start work. Of these, two usually start out fine, but within four to five weeks, begin to miss time. Although we counsel them and coach them, they are usually gone within six months. Most don't quit, or get fired - they just stop coming to work. The sixth employee will be here to celebrate his one year anniversary.

"I firmly believe that the three who just fade away accepted the job with intentions of turning their lives around. The reality, however, is that the $8 per hour [$10 after 90 days, with attendance bonus] that we pay is not enough to excite them about coming to work every day.

"That's not to say, however, that their earning potential is limited. Our company offers a large amount of overtime. ... [But] it seems to me that for the three individuals who just fade away, the progress doesn't happen fast enough. All they see is the $8-per-hour paycheck. Advancement does not happen overnight, and opportunity must be earned. For the most part, all any employee has to do to earn opportunity is to be reliable, but that is an unattainable goal for many. "

So if there's such failure in hiring ex-offenders, why does Mr. Veep keep bothering with them?

"For the one out of six who will stay," Mr. Veep says.

"For the one out of six who sees opportunity and works for it.

"For the one out of six who sees the value of a free education.

"For the one out of six who doesn't fade away. For the one out of six who maybe, just maybe, will turn out to be the best employee we've ever hired."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Men and women with criminal records may obtain information about re-entry programs and jobs by contacting Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166 or at dan.rodricks@baltsun.com. Hear Rodricks Tuesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., on "The Buzz" on WBAL Radio (1090 AM).

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