Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/5/2008 7:55:56 AM ET 2008-05-05T11:55:56

Clayton Smalls has come a long way since he was holding up tellers behind bank counters.

Today he works as a deli man behind the counter of a Fairway Market in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Smalls, 49, who got out of prison in October after serving 17 months for selling marijuana, has spent most of his life in and out of jail for everything from robbery to drug dealing.

But he’s finally ready to change his life, and the job he landed — thanks to help from America Works, an employment agency that trains and finds jobs forhard-to-place candidates like ex-cons and welfare recipients — has gone a long way in motivating him.

"I get to work every day an hour early," he says proudly. "The store manager has high hopes for me. He’s teaching me how to cut salmon."

"This job is the most important thing in my life," he adds.

There’s a growing desire in this country to get ex-offenders jobs as a way to keep them out of jail. The federal government and some municipalities are doing what they can to help parolees get job training and offering employers incentives to hire former prisoners, spurred by skyrocketing incarceration costs and exploding prison populations.

"Acquiring employment is crucial," says Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.). "If they don’t get employment, many of these individuals will be back on the corner hollering 'crack and blow.' "

That’s part of the reason Davis co-sponsored the Second Chance Act, a bipartisan bill President Bush signed into law last month authorizing $165 million annually for a host of initiatives to curb recidivism, including money to train ex-offenders for jobs. (About 700,000 people are released from prisons every year, and about two-thirds of those are expected to be back in prison within three years, according to the Department of Justice.)

The federal government already offers employers a tax incentive of $2,400 to hire parolees, and some municipalities are also following suit. Last month, the City of Philadelphia announced a program offering employers in the city a $10,000 tax incentive for every ex-offender they hire.

"We need employers to set up and give them an opportunity to show everyone they can be good employees," says Everett Gillison, Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for public safety. "These people are trying to turn their lives around and stay crime free."

It makes economic sense for the ex-cons and for the city that has seen its prison population hit an all time high of 9,250. "The best anti-crime package includes giving people a good job," Gillison adds.

Unfortunately, it’s a daunting mission. Many parolees don’t have the skills they need to land jobs, and ex-felons are restricted from a host of positions because of their criminal records. In addition, most employers just don’t want to hire ex-cons. And forget about hiding your past in this Internet age, experts say, where hiring managers can find out everything about you in a quick Web search.

Take Megon Valencia, 32, who was released from prison in January of last year after serving four years for using a fake name to lease a car, which legally is viewed as stealing.

She got 60 college credits while in prison, and ended up getting an accounting certificate. When she got out she landed a great job as bookkeeper for a wine distributor, but decided not to disclose her record because she figured she wouldn’t be hired.

"He did research on me after I started working and found out I was on parole. He flipped out and fired me," she says. "After that I thought no one would hire me."

There are generally few if any employment protections for ex-felons, says Dianna Johnston, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Some courts have ruled that an employer that has a broad practice of excluding people from all jobs because they have had an arrest or conviction has a disparate impact on African-Americans," she explains. "A similar impact may apply to Hispanics."

But, for the most part, a hiring manager can legally toss your application in the trash bin if you’ve been incarcerated, and they do.

Devah Pager, an associate professor at Princeton University, has studied discrimination against ex-offenders and is currently doing field experiments looking at this issue. "I hire young men to pose as job applicants, applying to real entry-level jobs in Milwaukee and New York, to see how employers respond to their race and criminal background," she says. "Having a record reduces a job applicant’s chances of getting a call back by half, [and] more if the applicant is black."

Happily, Valencia was lucky to find an employer open to hiring people who need a break.

She ended up landing a job as an administrator for Empowercom, a Denver-based telecommunications company where she makes $12 an hour, plus benefits, and handles bookkeeping and invoicing tasks.

"I’m trying to get my life back together," she maintains.

The company’s founder, Terri Jackson, says the mission when the company started was to "hire the disadvantaged or people who ordinarily would not have the best opportunities to be employed, including those on welfare, at-risk youth, ex-offenders, or non-English speaking citizens."

And when it comes to ex-cons, it’s paid off.

"Of all the groups we targeted, ex-offenders turned out to be the best employees, in part because they usually have a desire to create a better life for themselves," she says. "They are often highly motivated and many have usable job skills that are desirable for an employer. They come to work every day and do not engage in the type of behaviors that will land them back in the penal system."

While many people may disregard the issue of jobs for ex-felons as something they don’t have to worry about, we may all be forced to confront the issue sooner or later given the growing ranks of parolees.

"The number of ex-felons in the United States is at the highest level in our history," says Chris Uggen, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, who estimates there are about 12 million former felons living among us today. With an impending job shortage as baby boomers age, employers may be forced to start considering former prison inmates whether they like it or not, he surmises.

"Work is not a panacea, but a stable job and a good home situation really improves the odds that people will get out of criminal activity," he says, adding that a job does help keep ex-offenders out of jail, especially among older parolees.

So what should ex-felons do if they want to land a job and turn their lives around?

Peter Cove, the founder of America Works, suggest parolees move quickly to land a job, any job, right out of prison so they’re not dragged into the criminal world yet again.

Experts suggest former inmates find an agency in their town that focuses on finding jobs for hard-to-place candidates and take advantage of whatever skills training they can get from the government, nonprofit groups and employment agencies with parolee experience.

America Works has locations throughout the U.S. that can be located on their Web site.

Uggen also suggests checking out the following Web sites for help: The Sentencing Project, The Legal Action Center, and The Prisoner Reentry Institute.

The key to getting a job — especially for an ex-con — is references, experts say. To that end, some former inmates may have to take a low-level job, work their tails off, and use that employer for recommendations for the next gig.

Networking also is important. In today’s economy, where jobs are becoming more and more scarce, few people are able to land jobs without connections. There are many support groups for ex-inmates throughout the country that could be great resources.

Once parolees land a job interview, one of the hardest things is explaining their tainted past.

“Go: Getting On After Getting Out,” a book on re-entry put out by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, offers some great guidelines on how to answer questions about a conviction.

Don't lie, give excuses or harp on the details of a conviction, the authors write. Instead, they recommend showing remorse and describing the efforts former inmates have made to improve themselves. The interviewer is ultimately looking for a future employee, so parolees could talk about how they’re ready to move forward with life and how hard they're willing to work to get there.

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