WHEN HE WAS young and dumb, Joe Bell made bad choices that resulted in a lifetime sentence, but not how you might think.
The high-school dropout from West Philly took a car for a joyride at 17, got caught, got probation, then did it again. Dumb.
He served time, got out and then a few years later was convicted of burglary. He served time, got out and then was jailed for burglary again. Dumb. He's been a guest of the state for 10 of his 46 years and is now free. He's lived almost half a century, and he's got little to show for it aside from an apartment he may soon lose, and a 3-year-old son he vows never to lose.
He's no longer young; he's no longer dumb. Joe got his GED while incarcerated - and a wakeup call when he got out. Finally ready to fly right, his wings are clipped by his earlier misdeeds. The lifetime sentence is his record, which follows him like a thick tail, making it almost impossible for him to get a job. Last Wednesday's paper carried a pained, frustration-filled letter to the editor from Joe, begging for a job.
I met with him to talk about his situation. Joe straight-up accepts ownership of his past crimes: no excuses, no BS.
"From the first choice to every choice I've made up until today, I've made them knowingly. My mother taught me right from wrong. It wasn't peer pressure; it was not circumstances," Joe says. It wasn't drugs, either - he doesn't touch cigarettes or even coffee. "It was all me."
He's getting by, barely, on odd jobs and with a little help from his friends, but he doesn't like that.
"Monday through Friday, people going to work makes me feel like less than a man," he says. "When I work I feel the equal of anyone out there."
Since December, he's applied for about five dozen jobs, he says. He's posted his resume online. "Every now and then I'll get calls from people interested, but the snag is when they ask if you can pass a criminal background check. I say no and they don't call back." He says it's like being excommunicated by a church.
A couple of his previous employers I checked give him high marks for honesty and diligence. Ray Gilyard, who was his boss at Zipcar, also praises "Joe's willingness to solve a problem within a problem."
Joe's own problem, which he can't solve, is his record.
It's also our problem.
There are two reasons we, as a society, should help ex-offenders.
The first is altruistic: If you believe in second chances, if you believe in redemption, isn't Joe Bell as worthy as Michael Vick?
The second is from a practical viewpoint: If ex-offenders are denied honest jobs, what is left for them but to steal? Letting them break into a paying job is better than forcing them to break into your house.
Joe has aspirations but no lofty demands. He's looking for "anything along the lines of blue-collar, driver jobs, anything that requires minimal training, warehousing, shipping and receiving, field-service type jobs," he says.
Having read his letter and talked with him in person, I find Joe to be bright, articulate, well-informed and personable. If he's a risk - and any ex-offender is, let's be real - he's a low-level risk.
No longer young and dumb, Joe says his first priority and obligation is his son, Sebastian.
"When I did the things I did, I had no responsibility to anyone but myself. I was a criminal, I was an inmate, but now I'm a father and that's my first consideration," says Joe, who seems sincere as a prayer.
"I don't want who I was yesterday to impact what kind of father I am today," he says.
To be the father he wants to be, and the man he wants to be, Joe needs the dignity of a job.
He's begging. Is anyone listening?
Contact Stu Bykofsky at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5977. Join Stu on Facebook. For recent columns, go to philly.com/Byko.