Northeast Ohio's creaking economy has made it tough enough to find a job, these days, but thousands of area residents have another strike against them --- a criminal record. ideastream®'s David C. Barnett has more on efforts to convince employers that former felons need to get a second chance.
33-year-old James Moore has never held a job in his life. But, he always had money in his pocket… before he went to prison. In fact, that's why he went to prison.
MOORE: I got locked up for drug trafficking and carrying guns, trying to make some money --- the wrong type of way, though.
Moore spent three and a half years behind bars, and says he finally realized that he had to get himself on the right track
MOORE: So, now I'm back out here, trying to do it the way it's supposed to be done, you know what I'm saying?
Moore and nearly 15 hundred other ex-offenders recently spent a Tuesday afternoon at the second annual Breaking the Cycle Career Fair, held at the Zelma George Recreation Center on Cleveland's east side. There are rows of long tables, staffed by counselors and companies with jobs to fill. The Fair was aimed at easing the transition from prison to gainful employment, but that turns out to be a tall order. In a time when jobs, in general, are in short supply, applicants with criminal records claim they are shoved to the bottom of the pile. Seanna Jackson hasn't spent anytime in prison, but she's got a felonious assault charge on her record that she has to own up to every time she applies for a job
JACKSON: I found out that my ex-husband had a baby, and I was pregnant at the time, and I kind of lost it, emotionally, and just went ballistic.
She feels she's been condemned to a life of unemployment due to that one emotional outburst.
JACKSON: I think it's used as a discrimination tool to weed out the number of people who apply for jobs. I have been employed. I never realized the impact of my felony until I was laid off.
It took another ex-con to devise an answer to such challenges. Michael Jones launched the Breaking the Cycle Career Fair, last year.
JONES: I got frustrated by going to so many job fairs and there would be a long line where you would stand for an hour or two, there would be like 80 employers there and only four or five would hire ex-offenders.
Of course, given the fact that there ARE fewer jobs, you might ask what's wrong with an employer favoring applicants with clean records?
JONES: I mean, just because you've got a clean record doesn't make you qualified. I think that companies should hire people based on their qualifications and not their past. People make mistakes. Most of the guys that do get incarcerated are between the ages of 18 and 24. The decisions I made at 24, I don't make now at the age of 39.
Gary Baney buys that argument. He's the CEO of Boundless Flight, a national software firm, based in Cleveland. But, Baney says his company takes it even a step further by working to place job seekers with some of its clients.
BANEY: There's an enormous burden in Cuyahoga County put on us by individuals who have been incarcerated and can't find jobs. So, they're on food stamps, they're on unemployment, they're on welfare --- all kinds of burdens being put on our county because of this. So, we have a group, inside our corporation that works very diligently to help ex-offenders find beneficial employment.
Over the past year and a half, Haney says he's helped place six former felons in jobs. It's a start, but with some 10,000 returning to Cuyahoga County each year, it hardly scratches the surface of the real need.
And Boundless Flight was one of the relatively few companies to actually show-up at the Breaking the Cycle Career Fair, much to the disappointment of organizer Michael Jones.
JONES: We had 22 companies that were committed to showing up at this job fair, and only like 11 of them showed up. But, we will learn from this and get stronger.
James Moore sits in the bleachers along a wall at the Zelma George Center. After several hours of picking up brochures and talking with some of the recruiters, Moore's not very encouraged.
MOORE: It seems like it's more of a publicity stunt. I mean, they just giving you websites to go on. This is something we could have done at home, you know? And then, all the people didn't show up that was supposed to show up. So, I feel like it was more of a publicity stunt for them than for helping us.
As the afternoon comes to a close, Julian Rogers watches the various vendors pack-up their tables. Rogers is the recently elected councilman for Ward 10 of the reorganized Cuyahoga County government, and he prefers to look at returning ex-felons as…an opportunity.
ROGERS: This is probably one of the largest groups of folks that are actually immigrating back to Northeast Ohio. So, whatever we can do to make sure they're re-engaged in the community, that they can find gainful employment, and become productive members of society, I think Cuyahoga County's going to benefit.
But convincing employers to see it that way is a tough sell. And, judging by past statistics, about 40% of those 10,000 returning ex-convicts will wind up back in prison.