- The Washington Times - Monday, July 4, 2011

The federal government thinks it has found an underused resource for turning the job market around: ex-cons.

Former prisoners work harder and are more productive than traditional employees, supporters say, and they are willing to take jobs no one else wants.

“When someone serves time, they shouldn’t face a lifetime sentence of unemployment,” Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said at a recent press conference, where she announced $20 million in grants to help young prisoners re-enter society and the workforce. “There are clear economic advantages to reintegrating these people in our workforce.”

Take Georgia, for example.

With the state’s tough new illegal-immigration statute driving away many of the traditional farmworkers, Gov. Nathan Deal recently suggested that many of the state’s 100,000 ex-prisoners now on probation could fill about 11,000 openings in the state’s top industry.

“There are a lot of positives that come from probationers being employed,” said Brian Robinson, the governor’s deputy chief of staff of communications. “We are putting people who aren’t able to find jobs into jobs that we actually need done. They’re doing a job that is very important to our state.”

In fact, in the state’s Bacon County they are even using current prisoners to farm 18 acres of blueberries through a work-release program. The inmates enjoy getting out from behind bars, and they do it for free, so it saves the community money.

“They do a good job for us,” said Roger Boatright, chairman of the county commissioners. “They get the job done, and we’re very pleased with them.”

In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell has also placed an emphasis on helping former prisoners re-enter society. “America is a nation which believes in second chances,” he said.

On a national level, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said this is a priority for the Obama administration. “It has never been more important,” he said at the Labor Department conference with Mrs. Solis last month.

But for most former prisoners, it’s not so easy to find a job. They face high unemployment rates, with Georgia having a rate of nearly 15 percent.

Nationwide, more than 95 percent of prisoners will be released at some point, according to the Federal Interagency Reentry Council. That means each year about 700,000 former inmates will come back into society.

Employers often are afraid to hire them. They question whether the ex-cons will follow rules, or if they will steal from the company or put other employees and customers in danger.

Glenn Martin, spokesman for the Fortune Society, said his organization’s goal is to find these former inmates jobs, “whether they’ve spent 40 years in prison, or one night in handcuffs.” Half of the organization’s staff members are former inmates, and so are one-third of the board members.

Mr. Martin himself was locked up for six years, and when he was released he had to interview for 35 positions before he was eventually hired.

“When it comes to employment, people with criminal records are at the back of the line, and the line just got that much longer because of the economy,” he said. “Employers are overlooking a valuable segment of the labor market.”

He said hiring former prisoners will help the economy, because the alternative is having the government support them through public assistance and shelter programs.

Businesses that hire former prisoners are eligible for a $2,400 tax credit. They also can be insured against theft and damage from those employees through a federal bonding program that is free to the employer.

Mrs. Solis added that workers with a criminal record tend to be more productive. It is more difficult for them to find jobs, and therefore, they have a greater sense of urgency.

“We’re losing out on a lot of productivity,” she said.

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