‘People’s Backs Are Against the Wall’; Amid Downturn, a Rise in Jobless D.C. Parolees and Chances of Recidivism

The Washington Post, September 6, 2009
BY: Yamiche Alcindor

For the first time in nearly a decade, the majority of court-supervised ex-offenders in the District are unemployed.

Although the exact number of out-of-work ex-offenders in the District and nationwide is unclear, community leaders, city officials and former felons agree that a poor economy decreases the odds of an ex-offender landing a job.

“People’s backs are against the wall,” said Herbert Martin Sr., 43, who was released from prison in July after serving four years for dealing drugs. Martin and others say they believe that the bleak economy has forced ex-offenders, already at the margins of employment, to return to crime to survive.

The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, which oversees parole and probation in the District, reports that last year, 52 percent of court supervised ex-offenders — more than 7,800 people — were unemployed. The number of jobless ex-offenders has increased by 10 percent since 2003 and 2 percent since 2007.

Isaac Fulwood Jr., chairman of the U.S. Parole Commission, said that not having a job is akin to a substance abuse problem or losing contact with a parole or probation officer. A former police chief, Fulwood said unemployment is one of several factors that can result in a parolee being tethered to a Global Positioning System tracking device as a deterrent to criminal behavior.

“I’m certain that if you don’t have a job and you have no income, you’re going to do what it takes to eat,” said Fulwood, whose job is to send those who re-offend back to prison.

According to several studies, employment and recidivism are linked. Leonard Sipes, a spokesman for CSOSA, said a job is the best way to keep ex-offenders out of jail.

“The number of unemployed ex-offenders certainly makes crime control more difficult,” Sipes said. “There is a substantial amount of research that indicates that there is a strong correlation between working and not going back to prison.”

Social stigmas have long existed for those leaving prison and trying to get jobs, a problem that is exacerbated with the increasing competition for work. Long lines at career fairs include recently laid-off workers with no criminal histories. Employers are filling positions once held by ex-offenders with people without criminal histories. The practice has caused many ex-offenders to turn to social service programs for survival, said Sipes, who hopes the city will create robust action plans to deal with the growing number of unemployed ex-offenders.

Martin is learning to repair computers in the hopes that he might one day provide for his family. For now, he makes $7.70 an hour as a secretary.

In the months after his release, he has had to visit food banks, free immunization clinics and countless job fairs.

He has, however, vowed not to turn to illegal activities. “I’m frustrated with my conditions, but I’m still smiling about my freedom,” Martin said.

But financial strains, experts said, take a toll on families, especially when the people who might have assisted them are unemployed or strapped for cash.

“A lot of people who come out of jail and prison end up relying on someone else for food and shelter,” said William Burrell, a corrections management consultant who has studied the ex-offender population for more than two decades.

For some, such as Maurice Thompson Jr., 32, the urge to return to crime is heavy.

“I’m at the edge of the cliff, and a slight wind might push me off,” said Thompson, who spent five years in prison for armed robbery and illegal possession of a shotgun. “I have to do something for my kids.”

Thompson has been in and out of jail since his sophomore year of high school. He has two sons, 3-year-old Maurice Thompson Hawle III and 18-month-old Elijah Jeremiah Hawle. He works part time, inflating bounce houses for less than $50 a week. Without a high school diploma or formal skills, the odds of him finding a job remain slim.

“I know the risk,” he said. “I can’t do illegal things because of my kids — that’s the only thing keeping me away. I don’t consider a guy trying to feed his family illegal, though — society leaves him no choice.”

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.