Plan to find ex-offenders jobs is, so far, tripping on hurdles

John Phillips (right) and Will Little, ex-offenders who turned their lives around, listen as Mayor Nutter talks budget cuts at a town meeting Wednesday. A plan to help ex-offenders has hit problems.
John Phillips (right) and Will Little, ex-offenders who turned their lives around, listen as Mayor Nutter talks budget cuts at a town meeting Wednesday. A plan to help ex-offenders has hit problems.
Posted: December 16, 2008

When he was campaigning for office, Mayor Nutter spoke with passion about the importance of giving a second chance to inmates who want to find a place in society again. He pledged to create opportunities for ex-offenders.

"If we want to drive the crime rate down in this city, we have to put these people back to work," he said at a September 2007 forum.

John Phillips, a former Graterford inmate who has turned his life around, liked what he heard. He's less happy now.

As of Dec. 31, Phillips will be out of a job, thanks to budget cuts Nutter announced last month. The program that Phillips works on, the Adolescent Violence Reduction Partnership, is being shut down after officials concluded that it was not as effective as they'd hoped.

"I felt I was making a difference," said Phillips, who was freed in February 2007, after serving time for aggravated assault. "This will make my life a lot worse. I'm on parole until 2019. I'm a father of four."

Phillips' plight is primarily the result of the economic crisis that has badly damaged the city's finances.

But nearly a year into Nutter's first term, the city's efforts to help former inmates have sputtered, and not all the problems can be blamed on budget pressures.

The city failed to take basic steps to implement a law encouraging the employment of ex-offenders. And the man hired to run the city agency helping former inmates was demoted after overspending his budget and canceling a contract with a nonprofit agency helping ex-cons find jobs.

Ray Jones, director of Impact Services Corp., said that his agency still doesn't know if its city contract will be renewed, and he wonders what's going on in the Mayor's Office for the Reentry of Ex-Offenders, or MORE.

"To date, there's been nothing but lip service in providing services for re-entry," Jones said.

Nutter's deputy mayor for public safety, Everett Gillison, acknowledged that there have been problems, but said that the administration's re-entry efforts are becoming more focused and beginning to show results.

"It's a work in progress," Gillison said in an interview last week. "There's no doubt the mayor's on the right track."

Gillison said the city is ramping up prison services and finding jobs for a growing number of ex-inmates.

The scale of the challenge is daunting. Roughly 35,000 people are released every year from Philadelphia prisons. MORE operates a single location in Southwest Philadelphia and has a staff of 18, including its director.

The re-entry office is the primary agency providing direct services to ex-offenders, but other city officials were responsible for implementing a bill enacted at Nutter's urging last year to encourage the employment of ex-offenders. They mostly failed to do so.

Under the bill, the city personnel director was to develop guidelines for the city's hiring of ex-offenders. The prisons were to assess inmates' needs and devise individual plans for supportive services before their release.

The city Revenue Department was to notify all private businesses in the city of tax credits available for hiring ex-offenders. And the city was supposed to require that any winner of a no-bid city contract identify potential job opportunities for ex-offenders and report on their efforts.

None of those steps has been completed. So far, no employers have taken advantage of the tax credits.

Gillison said the slow start in implementing the law is largely due to the challenges of getting a new city administration up and running.

He said that the prisons are developing programs to help inmates plan for their futures and that about a half dozen employers have expressed interest in the tax credit for hiring ex-offenders.

"You have to walk before you can run," Gillison said. "We're taking the opportunity to build this program and build it correctly."

Besides implementing the 2007 law, the administration hoped to provide more effective services directly to people being released from prison. And it didn't help that the first director of MORE, Ron Cuie, was removed after he made sweeping personnel changes and overspent his budget.

Private agencies such as Impact Services that had been helping ex-offenders suddenly found their city contracts terminated this summer, and are still waiting to see if they'll be renewed.

Carolyn Harper, who took over MORE after Cuie's departure, said that the qualifications of agencies are being carefully evaluated, and some will get contracts in the coming weeks.

"We don't know how much we'll have to spend yet," Harper said.

Harper and Gillison said that they expect MORE to eventually open several other locations to serve inmates across the city.

And they said that the office has adopted a model proven effective in other cities that focuses intensive services on about 500 ex-offenders willing to sign one-year commitments to turn their lives around.

In the past, Harper said, the office made a mistake in "trying to be all things to all people."

Gillison said that about 200 ex-offenders are in the intensive program, and about half are steadily employed. He said that there should be announcements soon about businesses and foundations joining the administration's efforts.

But Harper acknowledged that the sagging economy will make everything harder. Her office has matched 13 ex-offenders with positions in the city Water and Licenses and Inspections departments, but they haven't been hired.

"Because of the budget, those positions are on hold," she said. *

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