Second Chances

A lawmaker is on a mission to convince the government to hire more ex-offenders.

With more than 9,000 people leaving Maryland's prison system annually and returning to Baltimore, programs to keep ex-offenders from slipping back into their old habits are critical. One such program, launched in 2005, brings nonviolent former convicts to work for the city.

The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia believes the government can follow Baltimore's example.

"I don't see why the federal government can't do that," says Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill. "If we're going to be able to convince the private sector to make use of some of these individuals, then I think the federal government has to start it."

Davis says he's considering introducing a bill or launching a program with the Office of Personnel Management that would facilitate the hiring of ex-offenders into nonsensitive federal jobs. Under the program, which likely would start as a pilot project, agencies would have to reserve a certain number of jobs for ex-offenders in areas such as construction or maintenance.

"Let's say the federal government has a natural resources program, and they're hiring ex-offenders who weren't pedophiles or violent criminals to help maintain the parks," Davis says. "What would be the harm of them doing that kind of work?"

Davis has emerged as a leader in efforts to reduce recidivism. He sponsored a bill, signed into law by President Bush in April, to reauthorize a Justice Department grant program for state and local re-entry programs. The law approves $320 million in grants through fiscal 2010.

Since the early 1980s, when President Reagan's war on drugs brought an influx of new crime policies, the incarceration rate nationwide has tripled. Federal data shows that more than 650,000 offenders are released from federal and state prisons each year, and many struggle to find housing, training and employment.

The Labor Department has estimated that unemployment among ex-offenders is between 25 percent and 40 percent, and many studies have linked joblessness among ex-prisoners to recidivism rates. The Justice Department estimates almost three out of five inmates returning to society will be charged with new crimes within three years of their release from prison and two out of five will be re-incarcerated.

Ex-offender hiring programs might cost a lot on the front end, Davis says, "but it's about the only way you can reclaim those people. You either implement a program or know what the alternative is, and I think the alternative price is too high."

At a hearing before Davis' subcommittee in June, witnesses testified that people with criminal histories often are barred from employment or obtaining occupational licenses, even if their conviction would have no bearing on their suitability for the profession. Roberta Myers-Peeples, director of the National Helping Individuals With Records Re-Enter Through Employment Network, said ex-offenders often have the proper education and skills for a job, but are not considered because they must disclose their criminal record on applications.

Nancy Kichak, associate director for strategic human resources policy at OPM, said at the hearing, however, that job postings on the federal jobs site do not ask applicants about their criminal history. Furthermore, she said, OPM policies do not bar ex-offenders from applying for federal positions, though a conviction could be considered in a hiring decision.

"We believe current human capital practices provide adequate opportunities for employment and that no special appointing authorities for hiring ex-offenders in the federal government are needed," Kichak said.

But she acknowledged she does not know of any ex-offenders working for federal agencies. And from Davis' viewpoint, that statement alone offers proof that the government is not doing enough to assure ex-offenders that they would qualify for federal employment. Aside from the military, he says, there is little evidence that the government is a model employer when it comes to hiring former prisoners.

Davis says his proposed pilot project would be based on Baltimore's program, in which outreach groups and contractors collaborate to help match former prisoners with city jobs, and a pilot program in his district. The Cook County, Ill., project, which started in 2004, allows 100 first-time nonviolent offenders who have successfully completed a rehabilitation program to complete a yearlong paid internship with the county, after which they are eligible to apply for full-time positions with the county or participating private sector employers.

A similar program could be successful on the federal level, Davis says, though ex-offender hiring policies would have to be refined. For instance, the program would be more effective if officials could determine how to tailor specific jobs for female ex-offenders.

"When talking about construction and maintenance jobs, you're often talking about males," he says. "But we know that the fastest-growing part of the prison population is now females, particularly young African-American women who have committed crimes like shoplifting."

In addition, Davis says, it will be difficult to convince other lawmakers to invest in policies that help ex-offenders. Rehabilitation and re-integration programs are springing up across states and localities, but this is only a recent development, he notes.

"I have my own view of leadership, and that is the ability to get other people to do something because they want to do it, not because you want them to, which means you have to convince them that it makes sense," Davis says. "That's what we have to do-we have to convince members of Congress that it makes sense."

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