Center Maryland: Reconnecting Baltimore by giving ex-offenders a second chance

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on February 24, 2016.

By Donald C. Fry

Each year thousands of men and women who have been convicted of crimes are released from incarceration and return to Baltimore City to start their lives over.

Irrespective of the length of their incarceration it’s not an easy road to get back on their feet and become integrated as productive members of society. Most will return to their old neighborhoods, often with no employment prospects and limited job skills or training. Some, disconnected from families, will even lack stable housing options.

Add to this mix is the fact that many face a difficult transition period adjusting from the hardships of prison life to a free society. The odds are often so insurmountable that many return to criminal activity and end up in jail again.

Recidivism comes at a big cost to these individuals. The cost to society is high as well as taxpayers bear the significant financial costs associated with repeat incarcerations.

Virtually every expert and study on reducing recidivism agree that one of the lynchpins to breaking this “revolving door” cycle is getting ex-offenders into stable employment as quickly as possible.

And if that weren’t enough, experts in the field have found that companies that hire “job ready” ex-offenders are finding substantial value in these employees.

With the right support – such as proper training in specific job skills – ex-offenders can become stellar employees, says Joseph T. Jones, Jr., the founder of the Center For Urban Families in Baltimore, which operates, among other programs, STRIVE, a job training program for ex-offenders.

“Most ex-offenders come out of jail knowing they messed up in the past. What they really want deep down is to prove themselves,” Jones said. “Given the opportunity, they will work really hard to do just that. They just want and need a second chance.”

While there is strong interest among ex-offenders to land jobs, the barriers can be high, including employer perceptions that these job candidates won’t make good employees.

These challenges underscore why the Greater Baltimore Committee has launched the Coalition for a Second Chance program as part of its Reconnecting Baltimore initiative to work with community leaders in Baltimore to address some of the root underlying causes that brought about the civil unrest that occurred last April.

The Coalition for a Second Chance is a public private partnership working to address the causes of recidivism and to help ex-offenders secure jobs. One key goal of this GBC-led effort focuses on educating business owners and leaders about the role that business must play in reducing recidivism and the corresponding benefits and value of hiring ex-offenders.

Part of this effort includes negating the misperceptions about ex-offenders and encouraging companies in Baltimore to open up job opportunities to meet the employment needs of their company.

Gerald Grimes, a member of the coalition, is program manager for the Northwest One-Stop Career Center/Re-Entry Center, part of the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development. The career center places about 400 ex-offenders a year in suitable job openings.

Grimes believes that another way for the business sector and public sector to improve employment opportunities for ex-offenders is to address what he sees as a “skills gap.”

Plenty of companies have work, he notes, but too often one who has returned from incarceration lacks the needed specific skills to get that work. By encouraging more employers to come together and seek or develop workforce training programs for ex-offenders, more opportunities will open up, he said.

“For successful re-entry to society, ex-offenders need the opportunity and a path to that opportunity,” Grimes said.

Fortunately for Baltimore, Johns Hopkins is among the largest employers that have developed a strong program to provide workforce training and job opportunities for ex-offenders. Johns Hopkins hires more than 100 men and women annually and is constantly exploring ways to expand job opportunities at their Baltimore facilities.

The Johns Hopkins program is a good business model for local corporations and companies to emulate when considering the development of ex-offender hiring employment and training programs.

But Jones is quick to note that a business does not have to be a large organization like Johns Hopkins to have a successful hiring program for ex-offenders.

He likes to tell the story about a local mechanical contracting company that he was able to interest in hiring some graduates of the center’s ex-offender training program for summer laborer positions. The business was so impressed with the job performance of the center’s graduates at the end of the summer months that the company decided to employ a number of the summer hires on a full time basis. The company now has expressed an interest in hiring even more program graduates.

The bottom line is that it is important for the Baltimore business community to collaborate with the GBC’s Coalition for a Second Chance and other job placement programs to play a leading role in tackling the issue of reducing recidivism and providing employment opportunities for ex-offenders.

And at the end of the day, it is highly likely that the companies that do so will find that the job they provide is more than just a paycheck for these returning citizens. It will serve to reconnect them with their communities and help them provide for their families. That alone will pay huge dividends for the ex-offenders, their families and the entire Baltimore community.

Donald C. Fry is the President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to Center Maryland.

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