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August 24, 2006 - Dallas Morning News (TX)

Wanted: A Second Chance

Dallas: Job Fair Attracts A Bevy Of Ex-Felons But Few Employers

By Herb Booth, The Dallas Morning News

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Lonnie Jackson admits he made a mistake 10 years ago.

His punishment for it may last forever.

"You make one mistake, and they hold it against you for the rest of your life," Mr. Jackson said Wednesday at a job fair for convicted felons. "Businesses shut you out when you put that on your application. I've been straight up with people about my record."

Mr. Jackson was convicted of drug possession 10 years ago. He joined other ex-felons at a job fair at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center in South Dallas.

The attendance, estimated in the thousands, overwhelmed the fair's 10 employers and its roster of faith-based groups and firms that help former felons clean up their records.

Many of those who attended expressed gratitude for the job fair but lamented the small number of would-be employers and the types of jobs being offered. Less than 10 percent of employers invited to the fair took part.

The number of employers was so small that as people sweated outside and inside the recreation center, an occasional voice would come over the public address system asking people to leave the building so others could get access to the businesses.

"Look, I don't need a job at a Tom Thumb or Waffle House," said Leroy Johnson, one of the attendees. "Most of these businesses are just taking applications."

'It's A Start'

Curtis Wilbert, vice president of the Texas Alliance for the Formerly Incarcerated and one of the event's coordinators, said he invited 120 businesses to recruit at the job fair, but he acknowledged that hiring ex-convicts is a tall order.

"It's tough to get businesses to sign off on hiring the formerly incarcerated," Mr. Wilbert said. "Employers frown on hiring them. But it's a start."

Mike Laughlin, a U.S. district court probation officer, said employers must go through an education process. He said employers who hire convicted felons can seek federal bonds to protect themselves in case of theft and earn tax credits for hiring ex-offenders.

Seeking Redemption

Mr. Wilbert said that most former felons are seeking a chance for redemption.

"These people just want an opportunity," he said. "They're our moms, our dads, our sons and daughters, our nieces and nephews. When we got here at 6 a.m., there were people lined up around the building already."

Some employers did report a small measure of success Wednesday. Virgil Reagins, a human resources representative for Werner Enterprises, a trucking company, said he had two or three potential employees apply at the job fair.

"My goal is just to get one person from this," Mr. Reagins said. "I think once these people get to a certain age, reality sets in, and they get to that level of maturity needed to hold down a good job. Your philosophy of life changes."

Job providers and job seekers weren't the only ones in attendance Wednesday. Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle, former Dallas City Council member Al Lipscomb and Dallas school board member Ron Price all put in appearances.

"I was asked to come here," Chief Kunkle said. "I'm not endorsing any specific program here, but I know we can't arrest ourselves out of crime. With the rate of recidivism ... it's really important to have people trained for jobs and for jobs to be ready for them."

Dispelling Myths

Mr. Lipscomb said it's up to elected officials, social service groups, business organizations and the community to alter society's misconceptions about hiring ex-offenders.

The appearance of the high-profile visitors didn't sit well with some of the attendees. When an announcement was made to stop mingling and talking so that a press conference could take place, the grumbling was audible.

"They're just giving us lip service," attendee Sheri Jones said. "They're just here for the cameras."

None of that mattered to fellow attendee Melvin Saxon, who said that society will either have to produce jobs for ex-felons like him or pay to put them back in jail.

"They need to look at us as human beings," Mr. Saxon said. "We eat. We laugh. We cry. American society needs to know that the crime rate will continue to climb ... if people can't find gainful employment. I mean, I'm making $5.77 an hour, and I have a college degree. There are a lot of people like me in here."

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