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 never came.
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 training.
"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 government priorities."
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 incarceration.
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 counseling.
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 mayor said.