Taking the first step toward giving ex-offenders a second chance

When Janice King, of Germantown, was released from federal prison in 2014, it took her a while to get a job. Now she works as an accounting clerk in the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation.

Maybe, in principle, employers might believe in giving someone fresh out of prison a second chance by offering that person a job.

But . . .

How do they figure out who is actually dangerous?

How do they make sense of the tangled government document that is a criminal record?

How do they thread through two competing legal risks: the risk of being sued if they don't properly consider ex-offenders, versus the risk of a suit for negligent hiring if a person out of prison causes a serious problem on the job?

How can they automate the process? Should they?

The questions are many, and the answers are confusing. Sorting them out was the goal of a session presented Thursday at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia by Philadelphia Works, the quasi-public agency that handles state and federal workforce training and employment dollars.

But, Mayor Kenney told the group, finding the answers is imperative, particularly in a city such as Philadelphia, where more than one in four people live in poverty and 85,000 people a year are either fresh out of prison or under the supervision of parole or probation officers.

Deciding whether to hire people with criminal records is "all about stigma. It's all about fear, and it's all about the unknown," Kenney said, speaking to an audience of about 80 employers and government officials.

What is known, he said, is that if people with criminal records can find jobs, "they are going to be paying taxes and not eating taxes."

After the mayor left, a panel of lawyers and company executives who employ people with criminal records talked about more nitty-gritty issues.

Lawyer Ryan Allen Hancock, of Willig, Williams & Davidson, laid out the newest requirements in Philadelphia's ban-the-box legislation. They require that any discussion about criminal history occur after a conditional employment offer is made.

The box refers to the one on an application that a job-seeker checks if he or she has a criminal record. That box is no longer allowed on applications in Philadelphia.

"This is about individualized assessment," Hancock said, urging employers to review their applications, to draft a written fair-hiring procedure, and to educate hiring managers on the law.

Whatever decision is made, document it, said Ivo Becica, a lawyer with Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel.

"Make sure you have a solid nonprofit hiring partner. Don't do it alone," advised Gabriel Mandujano, who founded Wash Cycle Laundry, a Philadelphia company that uses bicycles to pick up and deliver laundry. Almost half the company's employees have criminal records.

Nonprofits that help people returning from prison can suggest good candidates, provide perspective on societal forces that may have led to the criminal behavior, and later can assist with issues that may crop up at work.

"Someone loses their housing, or there's domestic violence, or someone loses child care - we don't do social work. We're not a nonprofit employer. So you lean on your nonprofit partner," Mandujano said.

And, more often than not, the nonprofit partner can help pull the worker back from termination.

Employers should cut these workers some slack because they often need time off to report to parole or probation officers, said Noelle Bilbrough, who spent months in jail for setting fires and now is a manager of Wash Cycle.

Most of the time, those appointments are known and can be incorporated into scheduling. But parole and probation officers can require next-day appointments and an employee must comply, she said.

One audience member, who operates a moving company, asked whether hiring people with records would hurt the ability to land federal contracts.

"There is a way around it," said panelist Brooks Hulitt, founder of DiSorb Systems, a medical-waste management company in Philadelphia. About 40 percent of DiSorb's staff have criminal records.

"You almost have to have two teams," he said.

Employers should know that the rewards outweigh the problems, said Philadelphia Works chief executive Mark Edwards.

Those who hire people with records find that "they are some of the most hard-working, dedicated and loyal employees they have," he said.

And that was the point made by the final speaker, Janice King of Germantown, who struggled to find a job after serving time in federal prison.

"As a returning citizen, we have to show [employers] we are dedicated, that we want the job," King said. "And there is a stigma, so you have to work a little harder."

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

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@JaneVonBergen

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