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November 5, 2012

Small Businesses Put Ex-Cons to Work

Ten years ago, Debbie Jakacki, owner of Jakacki Bag & Barrel in Chicago, a family business that's been around since 1942, found herself continually frustrated by her employees. "We didn't have a lot of people who had a great work ethic," says Jakacki. "They thought if they were coming to work one or two days a week, they were doing really well."

In her continual search to find dependable employees, Jakacki learned about the Safer Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps people with criminal records find gainful employment, and while she wasn’t immediately sold by the idea of hiring ex-cons, she decided to give it a try.

In the last decade, Jakacki figures she has hired over 100 former prisoners through the Safer Foundation to do mostly physical tasks like cleaning barrels and driving delivery trucks when and if they attain commercial operator licenses. It’s a business tactic that may give most pause but it has worked for Jakacki; To find employees she can depend on, she hires ex-cons. But it’s not without its drawbacks.

"There’s a lot of hand-holding at first," says Jakacki.

The employees that have come from prison are just as hard working and motivated as anyone else she has on staff, she says, in part because they’re so grateful to be given work. For the last decade or so, she says she hasn’t worried about abnormal absenteeism, and if she does have a problem with someone showing up late or slacking off, she calls the Safer Foundation, which intervenes and tries to get the employee back on track.

But there is also another reason to hire ex-cons beyond less absenteeism: federal tax breaks. Employers can qualify for a tax credit of up to 40 percent of income taxes on the first $6,000 of wages paid to each former prisoner hired.

Jakacki says it’s worked out well. Some ex-cons have worked for Jakacki for eight or ten years now, and a few who have continued their education and gone onto other careers, like plumbing, which has been gratifying. “We always felt that giving people a second chance was important," says Jakacki.

Not that it’s been perfect, says Jakacki. Many former prisoners have little to no work experience, which means they need significant training up front.

In an age where job application forms routinely have a box to check if you’ve ever been committed of a felony it may seem counterintuitive to employ an ex-criminal, but it’s was actually an idea conceived by Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1961.

The hope is that if the ex-prisoners can find more work, than they would be less likely to return to jail. According to numbers from the United States Department of Justice, more than 650,000 ex-cons are released into society every year, and approximately two-thirds are arrested again within three years of release.

When the Safer Foundation opened up 40 years ago, it was still a novel concept. Today it’s fairly common. Baker Industries, for instance, is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit headhunting service that offers employers manual laborers and caters to ex-cons and others down on their luck. They train ex-cons for free as well as help them finding housing and clothing. In Texas, there’s the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which goes even further: they train inmates on how to start their own business, and several graduates have started companies and then hired ex-cons.

Jerry Butler, Safer Foundation’s vice president of community corrections, says he hates the term ex-con. “It has a negative connotation and goes against what we try to do. We like to use more positive statements and refer to them as people with a criminal record, or people trying to re-enter society," says Butler.

In Seattle, Washington, one councilman has been trying to get a bill passed that would prohibit employers from using people’s prison background as a reason not to hire them, arguing that it’s better for society to employ ex-criminals rather than limit their employment opportunities. And earlier this year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency, put forth a new enforcement guidance on how employers should regard a potential employee’s arrest, stating that employers shouldn’t make decisions “solely” on the arrest.

There are arguably good reasons for an employer to know if their future worker has a shady past--nobody wants to hire a pedophile to work at a daycare--but a criminal background doesn’t automatically indicate that they’re going to be a dishonest employee, or that they will repeat their crime, insists Mark Edge, an ex-con who co-hosts a nationally syndicated radio show, “Free Talk Live," based out of Keene, New Hampshire.

Edge, who is adamant that he isn’t proud of his past, was 17 years old when he became an unwitting accomplice to his drug dealer pal who murdered a motel manager. He offers the following advice to employers interested but skeptical about hiring someone trying to re-enter society: “Give them a small amount of responsibility and as they achieve their goals, give them more."

That’s the path Paul Scott, multi-site manager of eight Dunkin’ Donuts in the Chicago area, took last May when he approached Safer. “I was amazingly shocked at the quality of individuals I was sent," says Scott. So far, he has employed 15 former prisoners, and within less than a month, two became shift leaders. Not every employee has been a model one, however. A couple employees were forced to return to prison. Another simply wasn’t very competent.

But, says Scott, “We’ve had fewer bumps than we probably would have had on our own."

Both Scott and Jakacki say that they never know the exact reasons for their employees being in jail, but the employees often volunteer the information later in conversation. Generally, as far as they know, the ex-prisoners they’ve worked with have been non-violent offenders, usually involved in drugs. Some workers, says Jakacki, use prison to their advantage.

"I’ve had some tell us that no matter what we can ask them to do," says Jakacki. “It will never be as tough as it was in prison."

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