One day after the Council for Court Excellence (CCE) held a press conference to share the findings of a major Ex-Offender study with the public, D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) chaired a hearing focused on ex-offenders, their needs, the programs available and the countless difficulties they face once released from jail.

The Council hearing, held on Friday, Nov. 18, was the first in 10 years. For several hours, lawmakers heard testimony from 139 individuals and representatives from non-profits, governmental organizations, the private sector and city officials.

Debra G. Rowe (middle), acting executive director, Returning Citizens United, Inc., joins others at a nonprofit that offers counseling services, programs and assistance to ex-offenders.

Outside the fifth floor of the Council chambers, several ex-offenders said that while they appreciated that there was a hearing at all, few expected much to change in their daily lives.

“In October 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder announced $110 million in Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 funding for the Second Chance Act reentry grants and the Justice Reinvestment Initiative,” said Debra G. Rowe, acting executive director of Returning Citizens United, Inc., a non-profit located in Northeast that offers counseling services, programs and assistance to ex-offenders. “These two efforts focus on reducing recidivism rates and state and local spending on corrections through the use of evidence-based, smart-on-crime approaches implemented by state, local, tribal and non-profit partners.”

“This included supporting community-based programs that are successful, and backed by evidence of effectiveness and would address a number of areas, including job training, education, mentoring, substance abuse and mental health treatment, family-based services, literacy classes, housing and employment assistance. The Sellmon v. Reilly decision has resulted in hundreds of additional, long-term prisoners coming home to DC during the past 18 months. It does not appear that the District of Columbia has taken any steps to insure that there were services available to them. This is a particularly difficult group, most incarcerated at least 15 years, who would need help with housing, employment, drug treatment, health care, etc.”

Rowe said the majority of coalition members have been in the system for many years and have both observed and experienced changes, but one factor which has not changed, she said, is the lack of resources the District of Colombia has available to returning citizens.

“There is a lack of resources of returning citizens,” she said. “It is our contention that the District will need resources with the essential aim of reconnecting returning citizens with their community and families by aiding them through the provision of case management, individual counseling, domestic violence prevention services, life skills/job readiness activities to ensure economic stability, and most importantly housing.”

Several speakers said the various coalitions are continuing to provide services (while) the majority of programs have had to close their doors or are in danger of closing.

“One of the biggest problems is that they train us to death with workforce development programs – plumbing, HVAC and computer certification. The game is to keep money going and keep money coming,” she said.

Rowe said it is important from a public safety standpoint for city officials to properly assist returning citizens. She and other presenters echoed their concerns about the lack of coordination of substance abuse, mental health, housing and other areas of need.

There are 70,000 ex-offenders currently living in the District and every year, 8,000 more men and women are released into the community. Most times, ex-offenders won’t get a second look from an employer if they checked the box on an application indicating they have been convicted of a crime.

At the hearing, Councilmember Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said more is needed to be done to re-integrate ex-offenders into the wider community and provide them with the resources and assistance they need.

“Once you have served your time, your debt has been paid to society,” Barry, 75, said.

A common thread among ex-offenders is the necessity for anyone returning from prison or jail to create their own jobs rather than look for a job.

“We need to look at helping ex-offenders get businesses and apply for contracts,” said Charles Thornton, director of the Office of Returning Citizen Affairs in the D.C. Mayor’s Office. “If you own a certified business, with more contracts, you can hire who you want.”

Andre Marr is one person who chose not to wait for someone to offer him a job. He was released from prison in 1990 and said the stigma of being incarcerated “and all that goes with it” dogged his steps. But he was determined to make a way forward.

“Employment is one thing and gainful employment is something different,” he said. “It is impossible to live on a minimum wage. I was truly blessed, though, because I had the support of friends and family.”

Marr, who said he started A&E Heating &Air Conditioning in 2001 with his own money, noted that much was different by the time he emerged from prison.

“The world has changed dramatically,” he said. “The hill has turned into a mountain and gentrification has made the mountain slicker. It seems to me that the people who can do the most are ignored the most. We’re not getting funding or support and the money that is allocated is not being monitored. A lot of people are down here for the wrong reasons.”

CCE officials are hoping council members will adopt the recommendations from the study. CCE offers a series of suggestions that include: the D.C. Council passing a bill that provides liability protection for local businesses which hire anyone with a criminal record and one or more District agencies developing a “certificate of good standing” program to promote the licensing and hiring of men and women who spent time in jail.

“These recommendations would have a minimal upfront cost and would produce dividends for the city, neighborhoods and people with steady jobs.” said CCE’s Executive Director June Kress. “In D.C., a criminal record is an enormous impediment, There is little prospect of finding steady work which is a threat to Washington’s long-term economic health.”

“Half of the 8,000 (ex-offenders) is likely to return to jail in three years. Joblessness among the previously incarcerated is a major contributor to high unemployment in the District’s poorest neighborhoods, threatening the city’s long-term economic health and public safety.”

Rowe discussed a thorny issue that makes a lot of local business people nervous.

“The Council won’t pass legislation to remove the box off applications asking if someone has a criminal record,” she said. “This would allow a person to at least get an interview. If the employer likes the person, you make a conditional offer, then do a background check. We need six votes (on the Council) but we can’t get that.”

Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., (D-Ward 5), introduced a bill that removes the box from applications for those applying for a job with the District of Columbia government. During the CCE press conference, speakers discussed the discomfort local businesses feel about such a proposal because of the potential legal consequences.

Examples cited included what might happen if an ex-offender was hired at say, a hotel, a bank or a retail establishment and an incident took place. Business people are seeking assurance that they would not be sued in such cases.

“We recognize the risk. Hiring some people is a risk in terms of proprietary information and retail outlets,” said D.C. Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Barbara Lang at a Nov. 17 press conference. “Businesses want to make sure they’re covered … the Chamber has a special appreciation. The employer liability provision is meaningful security for businesses. It is a commonsense solution that makes this a viable option in hiring people.”

Kress said if legal protections are put in place, employers and prospective employees would benefit. She said 50 percent of the businesses surveyed for the report, titled, Unlocking Employment Opportunity for Previously Incarcerated Persons in the District of Columbia, said legal liability protection and industry-specific training were emphasized by employers.

“We heard time-and-time again about liability,” she said. “We took a 50-state look particularly at New York and Minnesota. The quid pro quo for businesses is that if the proper procedures are followed, then if something happens, any negligent hiring suit that is brought will have less teeth.”

Barry has gone a step further by floating the idea of introducing legislation that if adopted, would allow an employer to ask about a criminal record only after making a conditional job offer. If the employer withdraws the offer as a result of a past arrest, he or she would have to submit reasons why the applicant could not work in that particular job.

Sources: D.C. Council Focuses On Ex-Offenders : Read Full Story

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