PHILADELPHIA (May 27) - One-time thief Heber Nixon Jr. has filled
out his share of futile job applications. All said being a felon
wouldn't stand in his way - but the promised calls from managers
He finally got a second chance when he showed up at a
construction site looking for work and found a sympathetic builder.
Now, the city of Philadelphia is making a concerted effort to
encourage the hiring of ex-convicts amid a renewed interest
nationwide in dealing with high recidivism, growing crime rates and
exploding prison populations.
Philadelphia averaged a murder a day the past two years and has
been sued to reduce its overcrowded, record-high jail population.
So on his 100th day in office last month, Mayor Michael Nutter
announced a program, being headed by an ex-offender, that gives
$10,000 a year in municipal tax credits to companies that hire
former prisoners and provide them tuition support or vocational
"This is one of the best crime-prevention programs we'll ever
have," he said.
Initiatives to help former prisoners re-enter society have
become a renewed priority across the country as new data shine a
spotlight on staggering rates of incarceration and recidivism.
For the first time in U.S. history, more than one of every 100
adults is in jail or prison, a study released in February found.
Federal data show about 700,000 people are released from state and
federal prisons each year.
Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments
Justice Center, said the level of interest in finding ways to keep
ex-prisoners from repeat offenses is unprecedented. "It's really
quite extraordinary," he said.
Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and San Francisco are among
cities with agencies already dedicated to ex-offenders; states
including Oregon and Oklahoma established councils last year to
study re-entry policies.
In April, President Bush signed the "Second Chance Act," which
authorizes more than $330 million over two years to help government
agencies and nonprofit groups lower recidivism.
"The spending on corrections is consuming a larger and larger
percentage of state and local budgets," Thompson said. "When
you're spending it on this, you're not spending it on other
Philadelphia spends about $30,000 a year to house each of its
more than 9,000 inmates.
"You don't have to be a CPA to do the math," said Ronald Cuie,
director of the mayor's Office for the Re-entry of Ex-offenders.
"The investment on re-entry has a hard-dollar return."
Cuie himself is an example of successful re-entry, having served
more than three years in prison for an aggravated assault fueled by
drug and alcohol addiction. Now clean and sober, he still reports
to a probation officer.
The scope of the ex-offender problem in Philadelphia was
detailed in a report last fall that showed about 40,000 former
inmates return to the city annually from federal, state and local
At any given time, according to the study by the University of
Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice, the city of
1.4 million is home to 200,000 to 400,000 ex-cons, many in need of
not only jobs but also education, health care and addiction
The study cites federal statistics showing nearly two out of
every three inmates released from state or federal prison are
expected to be rearrested within three years.
"The overwhelming majority want to start a new chapter in
life," said lead author Ram Cnaan, a professor and associate dean
of the school. "But it's difficult."
Former inmate Nixon, 51, of Philadelphia, said it was
frustrating to be told repeatedly that he would be considered for a
job, when he knew he wouldn't.
"They say, 'Well, you can sign the application, the manager
will call you,"' Nixon said. The calls never came.
Ronald Birkmire Jr., 37, of Philadelphia, said he had the same
experience because of his assault record.
"You might come in with a great resume ... (but) it's still a
struggle sometimes to get a job," Birkmire said.
Both men found employment in recent years with Gensis Group
construction company in Philadelphia. Owner Bill Reddish said he
has been hiring ex-offenders for years because of what he described
as a feeling of obligation to his community. He now intends to
apply for the tax credit, which is good for up to three years.
"Growing up in Philadelphia, in an urban environment, you have
friends that you've grown up with that have maybe made some bad
decisions," Reddish said. "And the stigma of being a convicted
felon stays with them throughout the rest of their lives."
Philadelphia has set aside money for at least 500 potential new
hires under the city program, but it's unclear how many businesses
will take advantage.
Some don't like to publicize their employment of former
prisoners. Others, including banks and child-care centers, are
restricted from hiring them.
Cuie's office is also working with the city prison system to
start planning for convicts' re-entries as soon as they are
sentenced, rather than waiting until six months before their
scheduled releases, as is current practice.
"This city government has a responsibility to extend our hand
and make sure that we're giving people that second chance," the