Ex-Convicts Get Jobs At Small Businesses

ex-cons working

By Geoff Williams

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 that 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.

More: A New Career Option For Ex-Cons: A White-Collar Jail-Prep Tutor

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, Jakacki 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's 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 that it's worked out well. Some ex-cons have worked for Jakacki for eight or 10 years now, and a few 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 ex-cons have little-to-no work experience, which means that 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 actually an idea conceived by Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1961.

The hope is that, if the ex-prisoners can find more work, then 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.

More: How Convicts Get Jobs Without Lying

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 find 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 that 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, 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, N.H.

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 of 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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Raylene Sage

If you are looking for an employment opportunity: are willing to train hard: be professional: please come to a Market America meeting at 344 University Blvd, Silver Spring, Maryland next Tuesday 7pm for English class/Wed 7pm for Spanish class. Fee is $5.
Please look for Raylene. If you aren't able to meet this schedule: you can email me: raylenesage@yahoo.com and I can let you know the future scheduled meetings. This is an opportunity for you to own your own business: whether part time or full time. Come and see if it is for you.

January 11 2013 at 1:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

How can an ex-con get a CDL?

November 11 2012 at 8:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ectullis's comment

You can just go and get one. I have my CDL and have a felony. I was able to get work with a moving company in Manhattan. I don't know where you live and if the laws are different but in ny it's cool. What you can't get until atleast 7 years post coviction is a HAZMAT endorsment.

November 20 2012 at 8:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Did you read that Jesse Jr. You might want to keep that company address handy.

November 11 2012 at 7:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

somewhat by accident I ran into a man at home depot who heard me whining about problems that were overwhelming me in trying to take care of my home after my husband died. He offered to come out and look at some trees that needed to be taken down, he was working as a tree surgeon. He came out, did the work very well, worked hard arrived on time etc. and I was very pleased. a friend of mine without my knowledge did somewhat of a background check on this man and found he had a past conviction record. I kept this info to myself and decided to give this man a chance. that was several years ago and he consistenly helps me and I pay him a fair amount and it has worked out well. he is a great worker skilled in many types of tasks like plumbing, tree work, pretty much a super handy person. recently he felt comfortable enough to tell me about his past, I didn't let him know that I had some knowledge of his troubled youth. he continues to help me out each week and this allows me to stay in my home. I feel badly that he can not find steady good paying work with health and pension benefits and that because of mistakes he made when he was young and immature really cost him so much because he really is an outstanding hard worker and very smart. he cobbles together a living, saved and bought a home and struggles through this recession to keep it. he does more work in an hour than three men.

November 11 2012 at 7:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

praise God! this what should be done confics are people too

November 11 2012 at 7:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

i think this is great...God bless her

November 11 2012 at 7:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Greg Brooks ME

Just want to point out. Austrilia was built by Britians Ex-Cons.

November 11 2012 at 7:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As for helping people who are just out of jail or felons get jobs....there are no programs to help people with misdemeanors get jobs. Or, what if you have an arrest record, but the case was dismissed or dropped. It still shows up on a background check.

November 11 2012 at 6:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to pulse1928's comment

A back round check for employment consist of convictions, they can not ask or hold arrest against you. Remember you are innocent until proven guilty, so anybody can be arrested but if you were not convicted it means you did nothing wrong " meaning on paper" that's what matters. This is for most jobs. If you are going into government jobs or things like that they may do further investigation into you. Also misdemeanors are rarely a problem, if asked at all.

November 20 2012 at 8:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am a 40 year old with two advanced degrees. I worked hard to go to college for 8 years and I am cannot find a job due to the following...bad credit, and some shoplifting charges. To top it off, I am Diabetic and a cancer survivor. Too risky for health insurance. I finally realized I had to do my own thing to make a living so I am making money doing stand up and writing. I got lucky. I think our society has made it too easy NOT to hire people with the ease of learning everything about people with social media and google. I made a mistake and if not for my own creative abilities, I would be homeless. This is sad.

November 11 2012 at 5:59 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Well done Jakacki! Everyone deserves a second chance"

November 11 2012 at 4:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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