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Program Works to Find Ex-offenders Transitional Jobs

November 10, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT
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ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: It’s a tough job, sorting through trash at this Chicago recycling center, but it’s a job M.C. Ellis is grateful to have. Ellis, 38, got out of prison last July, after serving 15 years on a murder conviction. When he got out, able only to read at a third-grade level, he didn’t have the skills for most jobs, and he came home to a very different world.

M.C. ELLIS, ALLIED WASTE WORKER: It’s changed.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What was the biggest change?

M.C. ELLIS: Computers and telephones and…

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The computers and telephones?

M.C. ELLIS: Yes, so, Internet, so…

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Did you have any idea how to work a computer?

M.C. ELLIS: No.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: No training in prison?

M.C. ELLIS: No.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How about a phone?

M.C. ELLIS: No, I still don’t know how to use them.

The need for 'transitional' jobs

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Nearly 700,000 people are released from prison every year, according to the U.S. Justice Department, and around 60 percent will commit another crime. Diane Williams, president of the Chicago-based Safer Foundation, says Ellis and others fight those huge odds when they are released.

DIANE WILLIAMS, Safer Foundation: If you can picture a brick wall, you've pretty much got the picture of what they face when they come home. There's very little opportunity for them, as in regards to employment, and they have to have really a will of steel to get through that wall.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: To help them get through that wall, the Safer Foundation, a non-profit organization that works with current and former prisoners, developed a transitional jobs program, a program that places ex-offenders in a job when they can't get one themselves.

The goal is to establish a good employment record and move on to a better paying job. Right now, the only transitional jobs being offered are at waste management plants sorting through trash at $6.50 an hour.

DIANE WILLIAMS: A transitional job acknowledges a couple of things. It acknowledges that, when people come home, the time that they're most likely to get themselves in trouble is as soon as they get home. So you have an opportunity for a structured environment for them to go to quickly. The second item that is stressed is the fact that people also have a need for money immediately upon release.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Ed Smith, the alderman of a tough west side ward in Chicago, says without a job, the more than 15,000 ex-offenders who come back to the city every year find money elsewhere.

How strong is that lure of the street corner?

ED SMITH, Chicago Alderman: Very, very strong, because it allows them to make money. If you can't go to a job everyday and make money, you're going to go wherever you can go to make that money.

Moving up the payscale

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A key aspect of Safer Foundation's transitional jobs program is finding employers willing to hire ex-offenders. Seven years ago, Allied Waste Services took a chance and began hiring ex-offenders that had gone through the Safer Foundation's programs. Today, ex-offenders make up 60 percent of the workforce here.

Allied Waste Services General Manager Bob Kalebich says employees who are ex-offenders and have come through the Safer program have only a 4 percent turnover rate, though he admits he was initially concerned about hiring ex-offenders.

BOB KALEBICH, Allied Waste Services: Well, I'm not going to lie. We were very skeptical about, you know, the safety of our own employees, plus the other folks that were in the plant, but we were guaranteed or promised people who have made mistakes in the past and now who are looking to better themselves and get back on the right track.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: For Ellis, the job at Allied meant something he'd never seen before: a paycheck.

So what were your thoughts when you got this?

M.C. ELLIS: It's in my name. I got a check, something that I'd never seen.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: For Franklin Spight, it was a way to get a better job. After two-and-a-half months as a trash sorter at Allied, he left the transitional jobs program when he found a better paying job at Supreme Medicar, a private company that transports elderly patients to their medical appointments.

FRANKLIN SPIGHT, Supreme Medicar: They started you at Allied because I feel that's the lowest of the totem pole. I mean, if you can make it through sorting through garbage, if you can make it through that, if you can handle that, if you're durable enough, you know, to withstand the smell, the stench of garbage, if you handle that, then you can pretty much take on anything.

The efficacy of transitional jobs

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The interest in transitional jobs programs marks a trend away from just punishment and back towards rehabilitation, says criminal justice professor Arthur Lurigio.

ARTHUR LURIGIO, Loyola University: There's been some swinging of the pendulum back to rehabilitation, which is where we began in our crime control policies in the 1960s. In the 1970s, we started to drift away from that, and then, in the get-tough era, which began in the 1980s and continues pretty much unabated to date, we paid less attention to rehabilitation and services and more attention to punishment and incapacitation.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the question is: Are transitional jobs a solution? For the first time, the effectiveness of those programs will be scientifically measured in Chicago and three other Midwestern cities.

Ellen Alberding, president of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, says the foundation will put up $5 million for the study, with matching funds expected from the four study sites.

ELLEN ALBERDING, The Joyce Foundation: We thought, "All right, let's take a look at transitional jobs for this group of people who have so many challenges, ex-prisoners, and see if this will work for them." Our ultimate goal, of course, is, after a three-year period, to really know what works, what doesn't, which guys it works best for, what strategies seem to be the most effective, and then make a case for significant public investment in this strategy.

SHELDON SMITH, Safer Foundation: You're going to have obstacles no matter what you do. It's how you deal with it. I want all you guys to know one thing: Yes, you are an ex-offender, but that does not have to plague you or have to be a curse.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The study, scheduled to begin in January, will track the employment history and recidivism rates of those in the transitional jobs program. Also tracked will be those who receive more limited help, like job preparation and resume writing, the more traditional programs that Safer has run for years. What they find will give the policymakers the data needed to decide which programs to support in the future.