The Prince George’s County Council is trying to make sure ex-convicts have a path into productive roles in society after prison now that Maryland has become the ninth state to “Ban the Box.”
The state recently enacted legislation to remove questions about criminal history from state job applications and forced consideration of such questions until later in the hiring process.
Under Councilwoman Karen Toles’ proposed Non-Violent Offenders Reentry Initiative the policy would be expanded to promote employment of county residents who were incarcerated or convicted of a non-violent offense.
“We all know somebody in the community that is in this situation and I believe this county needs to give ex-offenders another chance,” said Toles.
Provisions in the bill include awards to businesses that help train or hire non-violent offenders and the requirement that 25 percent of new hires for county agencies come from the ranks of county residents who are recently released from incarceration for a non-violent offense.
“Nobody wants to be told who to hire or how to hire, we just want to make sure ex-offenders are given a chance,” said Toles.
The proposal comes as Maryland unemployment rates are in a steady, if shallow decline. As of April, the state’s unemployment rate is at 6.4 percent, a little more than one percent lower than the national rate which is at 7.5 percent.
Even so, finding work remains a struggle and the struggle is much tougher, human resource and employment experts say, if your record includes a criminal past. Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks said she believes businesses have the right to be concerned about a potential employee’s past.
“Businesses want to succeed and they need to know about any candidate not just an ex-offender,” said Alsobrooks. “Businesses do not want to expose themselves to certain risks depending on a person’s criminal background.”
“I think it’s a stigma attached to them and it’s very easy to label people as horrible people,” said the Rev. Tony Lee of the Community of Hope AME Church, who tries to offer his church as a support system for those who were once incarcerated. The minister said he prefers the phrase “returning citizens” in lieu of the ex-offenders label.
“Some of these people, given the right resources, support system and direction, could be the most effective in helping build up the community and can be an asset to Prince George’s County,” Lee said.
Council members not only want to see ex-offenders hired, they want to offer them a smooth transition back into society.
“We want to set up a bonding program, many of them don’t have homes so we want to make sure they have a place to live and make sure they establish a positive network system,” said District 8 Councilman Obie Patterson.
“If possible, we want to establish a hotline for them to talk to someone if they ever feel weak.”
Toles’ goal is to make this reentry program a “one-stop-shop” for ex-offenders where they can get all the necessities they need for the real-world such as job readiness, job placement and anything else they may need assistance in.
She has implemented a task force to see how other reentry programs work. A source of funding for the project is uncertain at the moment. “We are in the infancy stage right now with this project,” said Toles.
“Once the task force does its research throughout the summer, then we will be able to be effective.”