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Ex-inmates in York County get 'Second Chance' at job fair

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
Job-seekers pack a room at the York County Administration Center during a Second Chance job fair Wednesday, June 12, 2019. The fair, sponsored by the York County Reentry Coalition, was for York County residents with a criminal background. Bill Kalina photo

After leaving jail or state prison, former inmates face an uphill battle when they're applying for jobs.

"They come out really lost, not knowing which direction that they need to go," said Cristie DeWitt, site administrator for Pennsylvania CareerLink in York County. "Without having some kind of money, it’s hard to pay their fines, pay their rent, put food on the table, (buy) things for their children."

To help these men and women get back on their feet, rebuild their lives and reduce recidivism, the York County Reentry Coalition sponsored a Second Chance job fair Wednesday, June 12, at the York County Administrative Center.

About 30 companies sent recruiters to meet with more than 200 people having difficulty finding jobs because of their criminal records.

"If more people were opening doors and stopped looking at your past history, I think it would be a lot better for the inmates that are coming home, who paid their debts to society and are willing to change and not go back to their bad habits," said Jamar Johnson, a job-seeker at the fair.

Johnson, 43, of York City, was released on parole from prison in 2016 after serving six years for charges related to drugs and possession of a firearm.

His first job out of the gate was at a pizza place. After about six months, Johnson found work loading garbage trucks on a route for a waste management company.

But after the company changed its payroll structure, which resulted in a pay cut for Johnson, the father of five decided to look for something else, which brought him to Wednesday's job fair.

It hasn't been easy for him to find other work.

"I’ve never been in trouble since I’ve been home," he said. "I’m doing positive things, hanging around positive people."

Johnson said some companies are open to giving former inmates an opportunity, but there are others who only judge them by their past records, so a job fair with employers who want to provide that second chance is very much needed.

"There’s a lot of good guys coming from jails that do want to change (and) don’t want to resort back to that type of lifestyle," Johnson said.

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Another job seeker, Shawn Ness, said having a job fair for people with a criminal record is a significant help, especially for those who are convinced no one will hire them because of their history.

Ness, 31, is on work release at York County Prison.

He's serving one to two years for drug delivery but said he could be released in early December. He has a part-time job as a restaurant cook and went to the fair to look for a second job.

"A lot of employers are giving second chance opportunities, which is awesome, because some people just made a mistake," Ness said. "That doesn’t make them a bad person."

Shawn Ness, a York County Prison work release participant, talks with Federal Express Human Resources business partnerEmily Mumma during a Second Chance job fair at the York County Administration Center Wednesday, June 12, 2019. The fair, sponsored by the York County Reentry Coalition, was for York County residents with a criminal background. Bill Kalina photo

In an effort to reduce discrimination and provide more opportunities for those with a criminal record, there's been a nationwide push to "ban the box," or remove the portion of a job application that requires applicants to indicate if they've been convicted of a crime.

York City adopted an ordinance in 2018 to remove the criminal history question from its application for employment with the city. Philadelphia has a similar policy.

Gov. Tom Wolf removed the question from state employment applications in 2017, and the state Civil Service Commission followed suit not long after.

The benefits of second chance employment aren't exclusive to the job seekers, said Kalen Macon, a program manager with Geo Reentry Services, one of the agencies that put together the job fair.

For one thing, second chance employers are eligible for the federal work opportunity tax credit, as well as federal bonding that guarantees reimbursement or coverage for any damages or inventory loss resulting from the actions of a second chance hire, Macon said.

Another benefit is the built-in supervision.

Any employee who's on probation or parole will be supervised by a probation or parole officer, and if the employee has any problem adjusting or has an issue at the workplace, those officers will work with them to address the problem.

There's also ongoing drug and alcohol testing, Macon said.

Second chance hires at Penn Waste tend to have more appreciation for their jobs than the average employee because they know the company is trying to help them, said Mariana Calderon Rivera, a bilingual recruiter for Penn Waste. 

Penn Waste recorder Mariana Calderon speaks with a job seeker during a Second Chance job fair at the York County Administration Center Wednesday, June 12, 2019. The fair, sponsored by the York County Reentry Coalition, was for York County residents with a criminal background. Bill Kalina photo

"There are some that, they do get out and want to do something in life and want to make a good living," she said. "That’s why we try as much as possible to give them the opportunity to work with us."

Other employers at the fair included York County, Stauffer Biscuit Co. and Sheppard, a Hanover-based manufacturing company, among others.

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The Second Chance job fair is part of a wider collaborative effort to reduce recidivism in York County and to help those caught up in the criminal justice system to get treatment for mental health issues and drug and alcohol abuse, as an alternative to putting them in jail.

The average inmate population at York County Prison reached a 10-year low in 2019 after a consistent downward trend for the past two years, due in part to those efforts.

That reduction is the result of cooperation between the prison and several county agencies, said Clair Doll, the warden at York County Prison.

Those agencies include treatment courts, pretrial diversion and supervised bail, evidence-based assessments and programming, intervention for substance abuse and a supportive board of York County commissioners, he said.

Being offered a job after being released from jail means everything to former inmates, DeWitt said.

"Having employment, having an opportunity from these employers, it’s really their kick-start to put their feet back into the community," she said.

The York County Reentry Coalition is a partnership between the state Department of Corrections, Geo Reentry Services, Pennsylvania CareerLink, the state Board of Probation and Parole, the state Department of Labor and Industry and Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and the workforce development company EDSI.