Getting jobs for ex-offenders key to keeping them from crime

Probation officers also play role despite heavy caseload

By Jeremy Bauer-Wolf

Robert Wheeler, right, with ex-offender at job fair in gym of St. Francis Academy,

Robert Wheeler, right, with ex-offender at job fair in gym of St. Francis Academy,

More than 10 years of Robert Wheeler’s life was spent locked in a California federal prison after he was convicted of multiple drug and weapon possession charges.

Upon his release roughly two years ago, Wheeler, 43, found himself without a job, without resources, the world utterly changed. He eventually landed a construction job, but his supervisor demanded as a caveat that Wheeler undertake a four-week training program for ex-offenders. Wheeler now credits that program with helping him gain the necessary professional skills so that he didn’t commit another crime.

State turns to outreach programs to reduce recidivism

Experts and advocates for prisoners say that providing offenders assistance immediately upon their release is the most infallible method of ensuring they don’t backslide. But those on the front lines of the recidivism battle — probation officers — are historically overworked and underpaid, leading the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to turn to supplemental programs to assist inmates. Those initiatives include connecting inmates with outside employment and educational opportunities, and an emphasis on attracting and training quality probation officers.

New probation officers take oath last week.

New probation officers take oath last week.

Wheeler worked at a Baltimore-based job and resource fair for ex-offenders Thursday as a representative for the job training program that helped him.

The pet project of DPSCS field supervisor Blanche Chenault, the fair has been an annual affair for five years and gathers nonprofits across Baltimore whose mission is to assist former inmates.

This year 25 nonprofits attended, setting up in the gym of St. Frances Academy, the Catholic high school adjacent to the Baltimore City Detention Center. Lines of tables advertised educational opportunities to earn a GED or attend community college, employment, and help in enrolling in health care.

“We may not reach everybody, but there’s always one person that doesn’t want to go back,” Chenault said.

Chenault said her inspiration to start the fair, which sees between 400 and 600 offenders, stemmed from her time as a probation officer. She said she noticed that when an inmate wasn’t provided a quick intervention, he or she was much more likely to re-offend.

“They want to eat, they want a place to sleep, they want a job, if they don’t get resources right away … they’re going to do what’s necessary to satisfy their basic needs,” she said.

Probation officers take on more cases than recommended

The caseload is heavy for those who watch over these former inmates, Maryland’s probation officers, dubbed “community supervision agents” by the department. Their chief duty is to monitor and advise ex-offenders who are serving either a probationary or parole period. The officer will make rounds to ensure an offender has stayed in the area and is abiding by court-mandated sentencing.

DPSCS has attempted to alleviate stress of probation officers electronically, instituting kiosks in 2011 that allow low-risk offenders to check in by answering a few questions and scanning their handprint.

But a portion of the analysis of state’s fiscal year 2013 budget revealed that DPSCS still partially failed in maintaining the state’s ideal average caseload per probation officer.

Probation officers are assigned more cases based on the type of offense. Officers who handle sex offender cases or Violence Prevention Initiative (VPI) cases, the bloodier crimes, are allocated fewer cases, DPSCS spokesman Mark Vernarelli said.

The fiscal 2013 analysis states the average caseload should be 30:1 for sex offenses and VPI cases, with DPSCS meeting that target. General caseload, however should fall at 100:1, but  probation officers in more than 16 jurisdictions were operating “in excess” to that number.

New probation officer is hopeful

New probation officer Jarrel Burnett gives class speech.

New probation officer Jarrel Burnett gives class speech.

Jarrel Burnett was one of seven who graduated Thursday as a newly minted community supervision agent.

Burnett said he’s heard of officers assuming more than 300 cases at a time, but the workload doesn’t stress him. Burnett said he’ll be responsible for between 35 and 40 cases starting out.

Officers earn a starting salary of $39,900, according to Vernarelli.

“You have to have the right temperament for this job,” Burnett said. “Some people just do it for the paycheck.”

DPSCS divides Maryland into three regions: North, Central, and South. The Central Area only encompasses Baltimore and Baltimore County — Baltimore typically requires greater attention from the department, Vernarelli said.

Program emphasizes the importance of jobs

Baltimore developed its own re-entry service in 2005 as an arm of Mayor’s Office of Employment Development.

The office offers a mentoring program, a document replacement and jobseeking workshop, and is located strategically at Mondawin Mall, an area easily accessible by multiple Baltimore zip codes. Project Manager Gerald Grimes said others from outside the city also use the service — he estimated 30,000 ex-offenders had come through the office since the service’s inception.

“We tell them to become productive citizens, but a how are you going to become a productive citizen if no one allows you to work?,” Grimes said. “It’s a public safety issue if you don’t get people jobs.”

Vernarelli called probation officers the “front lines of defense,” saying the state has always fiscally supported DPSCS probation division.

“The governor definitely supports us,” he said.

Extensive training for probation officers required

Vernarelli served as the Master of Ceremonies for the officers’ graduation at the Carroll County police training center — he said DPSCS graduates multiple classes a year, and while Burnett’s was smaller, they can number more than 20.

The class undergoes 10 weeks of training, eight weeks of classroom time and two weeks in the field, learning to balance the colossal responsibilities of a probation officer.

Probation officers must document every interaction comprehensively, Burnett said, in case of future legal battles. Much of his and his classmates’ time was spent studying how to write an accurate report and how to relay it in court. Burnett shadowed a veteran officer in the locality he will work out of, Westminster, and learned how to time manage his office days and home visits, during which he will have to wear a bulletproof vest under his clothes.

He was even pepper sprayed during training — “to learn how it feels.” Officers carry pepper spray on them for protection.

“We could have that opportunity to be that one person that goes and changes their lives. I don’t expect to change everybody’s lives, but if  I can affect one, then he can affect one, it goes a long way,” he said.

Programs tackle difficult challenges

Wheeler, the ex-convict who served his time in California, now serves as an outreach coordinator for the Center for Urban Families, a Baltimore nonprofit that participated in the job fair Thursday. He’s proof, he said, that offenders want help, but sometimes they just don’t know how to seek it out.

He said the program’s instructors schooled him in life skills that some ex-offenders don’t quite grasp. The students of the program were subject to a  “swear jar” of sorts — if they answered a question in slang instead of a “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am” — as one would address a boss, Wheeler said, you would contribute 50 cents to the jar.

The center then places the ex-offender with a willing employer after the four-week period, Wheeler said.

Ex-offenders, especially those 30 and older, stay invested in any position they’re given, said Scott Espenscheid, a program manager with America Works of Maryland, another organization that offers job placement for former inmates.

Espenscheid said sometimes the younger generation of offenders hasn’t yet figured out the streets aren’t where they want to be. Some just lack money, or even transportation to find assistance, he said.

“You market their skills to employers,” he said. “You ask them what they’re looking for, and then you say you have people that meet that criteria. You go in marketing their skills, not their background.”

Janerra Mitchell, 20, is on probation for an assault charge, while balancing a job search and raising her young son, who is just entering the toddler years.

She said though she was never incarcerated, she lost her job as a telemarketer and just wants something steady. The state hasn’t been helpful, she said, but events like the fair are useful because she can find resources for her son, if not a job.

“If I can’t find anything with my assault charge, I can’t imagine if you had a gun, or murdered,” she said.