Job training crucial for ex-offenders

December 15, 2009|By Pamela Paulk

Each year, as many people are released from Maryland's prisons as are employed at the Johns Hopkins medical complex in East Baltimore.

And each year, the Johns Hopkins Hospital helps provide meaningful futures for some of these ex-prisoners by offering them new hope in the form of jobs.

Studies have shown that former prisoners' ability to find and maintain gainful employment is crucial to their successful return to their families, communities and society. Without good, steady jobs, many return to illegal activities, fueling an unacceptable recidivism rate and eroding public safety.

The Johns Hopkins Hospital has hired more than 450 employees with criminal records since 2000. We believe we are the only major research hospital committed to hiring ex-offenders to this extent. While hiring ex-offenders clearly benefits society, it also makes good business sense.

In recent years, Johns Hopkins - like a number of Baltimore-area businesses - has found that former prisoners can be trusted employees. Most are eager to support themselves and their families, and they show their appreciation with laudable work skills and loyalty. In fact, ex-offenders have productivity and retention rates that rival those of workers without records.

At Hopkins, we carefully screen all prospective employees, including those with criminal backgrounds. Those who pass muster are trained and given supervised opportunities to prove themselves. And they do - every day.

A grant from the U.S. Department of Justice is allowing Johns Hopkins to do more training of ex-prisoners to prepare them for work. The initiative, which received start-up funding secured by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, is conducted in partnership with local community-based groups that identify individuals who want to work and provide them with extra support to get into jobs.

Such training is key in helping some of the nation's 47 million people with criminal records, many of whom have trouble finding work at the end of their sentences.

But a scattershot approach by employers is not enough. We must find ways to do more to prepare returning prisoners even before they are released.

The criminal justice system should provide prisoners more training, job-preparation and other focused services. The system should also identify employers and industrial sectors that are growing and hiring - including health care - and focus on preparing returning prisoners for those jobs.

To truly focus on returning prisoners, we will need new partnerships that bring together policymakers and government officials, faith and other community leaders, agencies, employers and prisoners themselves. Maryland, for example, is facing major budget problems. We cannot afford to keep locking recidivists away. One of the best ways to keep someone from committing more crimes is to help him or her find work.

Focusing on ex-offenders in a time of high unemployment may strike some as misguided, but we disagree. As an anchor institution in East Baltimore, we must provide stability to our entire community, and keeping ex-offenders employed clearly benefits the community. In the long term, the health-care field will see its staffing needs continue to grow; we cannot meet those needs if we write off a large section of the population.

If more of those returning prisoners were trained and earning a living, our streets would be safer and our communities would be stronger. And I'm confident that many employers would be glad they made the decision to hire an ex-offender.

Pamela Paulk is vice president of human resources for The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System.

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