The goal of a new program run by the U.S. attorney’s office in Fairview Heights is to help people convicted of a felony find jobs.
Chris Hoell, assistant U.S. attorney, came up with the idea for the 30-2-2 Initiative a year ago after reading about a similar program in Michigan. The goal of the program was to recruit 30 local employers to hire two ex-felons each for a minimum of two years.
Today, the program has 33 employers on board and is looking for more. Hoell said they spent the first year concentrating on signing up employers, many of whom don’t want to be identified. The local program has placed 11 ex-felons into jobs so far.
“I think most people’s reactions were it’s good for the community. These are individuals who want to work and need to work. They are ecstatic that they’ve been given the opportunity,” he said.
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Hoell, who is the prevention and re-entry coordinator for the U.S. attorney’s office, acknowledged the irony of people who prosecuted these offenders now trying to help them.
One of the problems felons coming out of prison face is the likelihood they will fall back into crime. As they look for jobs, many are confronted with their criminal past and companies refuse to hire them. Without jobs, they are likely to commit the same crime they did before, experts agree.
Multiple studies have found that working reduces recidivism rates among felons. A 2015 research study done by the Manhattan Institute in New York called Prison-To-Work: The Benefits of Intensive Job Search Assistance for Former Inmates, found that former inmates who obtained full-time employment shortly after their release from prison were 20 percent less likely to return to prison than those who were not working full-time.
“If people stay on a job for two to three years, they are really unlikely to return to prison,” Hoell said.
Dave Davis, a former U.S. marshal working with the program, pounded the pavement knocking on business owners’ doors in an attempt to get them to hire these ex-felons. Hoell said Davis knocked on about 200 doors.
“He did the heavy lifting to get the employers on board with what we were trying to do. He went door-to-door explaining to potential employers why it was a good program and the advantages they would have as participants,” Hoell said.
Companies receive tax credits for a year for each person hired. For six months, they can get free bonding from the state of Illinois.
“It’s basically insurance for any work-related claims of misconduct. After that time period, employers would have to pay the premiums. We think after six months they will know whether they have a good employee,” Hoell said.
If people stay on a job for two to three years, they are really unlikely to return to prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christ Hoell
Davis said he was persistent in his quest to get 30 employers signed up in the program’s first year.
“Some were reluctant and said they would think about it and get back to us. Some of those have not called back yet,” Davis said.
Tammi Spencer, a supervisor with the U.S. Probation and Parole Department, which works with the U.S. attorney’s office on the program, said many times people in law enforcement are seen as adversarial, but that’s not true.
“We want to help individuals as much as we can,” Spencer said.
The participants range in age from their 20s to 50s. They committed a variety of non-violent crimes like wire fraud, welfare fraud, and drug-related offenses, Hoell said.
U.S. Magistrate Donald G. Wilkerson described 30-2-2 as an excellent program.
“Employment is almost the main indicator of whether a person will be successful after he is reintroduced into society. You have to have a job. It’s important that ex-felons find a job that gives them a reason to belong,” Wilkerson said.
Chief U.S. District Judge Michael J. Reagan said, “Experience teaches that felons employed with a living wage are significantly less likely to return to a criminal lifestyle. They are carefully screened for participation in the program and intensely monitored while in it. By working, they pay taxes and fulfill their financial obligations to the court including fines and restitution. Those with child support obligations are ordered to make and keep their payments current. Some are able to pay the cost of their post-incarceration supervision.
“And, the rate of employment for individuals released from incarceration here in the Southern District of Illinois (the 38 southernmost counties of the state) exceeds 70 percent. Through the 30-2-2 program, we aim to increase that percentage and reduce our recidivism rate, which is about 30 percent,” Reagan said.
‘I will give them 100 percent’
Sara Davis, a participant in 30-2-2, said she spent two years in federal prison for meth manufacturing. When she was released, finding work as an ex-felon was not easy. Her probation officer told her to contact the U.S. Probation and Parole Department.
“She helped me get an interview at Swan Corp. in Centralia,” said Sara Davis, who has no relation to Dave Davis.
It has been a month since Sara Davis started her job and she said she is grateful to the company for giving her a second chance. The company makes showers, shower walls, shower floors, sinks and counter tops.
“It feels great. It’s wonderful to know I have a job. I get benefits. The pay is better than minimum wage. I make $11 an hour. I can’t live lavishly, but I can afford to live on my own,” said Sara Davis, a mother of four.
“Trying to find a job with my background, it was really tough. ... A lot of society thinks once you mess up, you can’t change. When you go to prison and get out, you have done your time. That shouldn’t affect other areas of your life. You absolutely can change. I have changed. I am a lot different. I have hope for my future. I don’t plan on going back to jail,” she said.
Sara Davis had a message for prospective employers in the program: “Give everyone a chance. Let them get their feet in the door. Everyone won’t work out, but people without criminal backgrounds don’t always work out either. I appreciate the opportunity I have been given. I will give them 100 percent of me,” she said.
Anthony Womack, a father to four, went to federal prison for a drug conspiracy charge at age 29 and got out 10 years later.
Now, 41, he said: “You can either come out angry and bitter or humble and hungry. If you’re angry and bitter you are more likely to return to prison. I am hungry and humble. I am not going back to prison. I am going to be successful in life,” Womack said. “I was sentenced on my mom’s birthday, Nov. 30. It was the worst day ever in my life. It was the worst pain I have ever felt.”
He said finding a job was tough before a program like 30-2-2.
Womack said he wants potential employers to know that there are a lot of people out there like him who made a bad decision, but they’ve done their time and “now, need jobs.”
“We need a chance to prove to ourselves, to our families and employers that we can come back into society and be productive, contributing citizens. We just need a second chance,” Womack said.
Hoell helped Womack to get early termination of his supervised release.
“I am thankful to have Chris (Hoell) in my life. Without him and the program he started, it would be much more difficult for me to get a job because of my past,” Womack said.
Asked about the reaction of potential employers to being asked to hire ex-felons, Hoell said, “There was a number who were reluctant and wanted to evaluate it and think about it before they would agree or disagree. These were people who had not hired people who had been in jail before.”
Hoell said at Butterball Farms Inc., in Grand Rapids, Michigan, nearly half its workers are ex-felons, also referred to as “returning citizens.”
“The workforce for Butterball is made up of 45 percent returning citizens,” he said. “They see the advantage to trying to find gainful employment for returning citizens to stabilize their lives.”
Carrie Link, community relationship coordinator, said Butterball Farms has been hiring ex-felons for more than 20 years.
“We’ve never segregated people out of our workforce,” Link said. “It has been the company’s experience that people who are coming out of prison are more appreciative of additional opportunities. They’ve paid their debt to society and just need a second chance.
“The two biggest indicators of recidivism is employment and housing. If we can take one of those barriers away, we are happy to do it,” Link said. She added that the ex-felons “are some of our best and brightest employees.”
‘We will give them a fair shot’
Lou Schreier, vice president of AMF Contractors Inc., St. Louis, which is part of the 30-2-2 program, said he doesn’t have a problem hiring ex-felons. “Our company is founded on and we live by Christian principles,” he said. “We’re firm believers in second, third and sometimes fourth and fifth chances.”
Schreier said he is willing to partner up with people coming out of jail or prison if they are willing to do the hard work to be successful. And he knows that “sometimes people are not successful.”
“We will give them a fair shot to be successful and we’re willing to overlook their past if they are willing to come in and work hard and do what needs to be done,” he said. Over the years, the company has hired about eight felons.
Robert Crowley, who works for AMF, said: “I went to Mokan, (a job training program in St. Louis) when I came home in 2013. It was hard when I came home. People had computers and cell phones. It was kind of fast-paced.”
We will give them a fair shot to be successful and we’re willing to overlook their past if they are willing to come in and work hard and do what needs to be done.
Lou Schreier, vice president of AMF Contractors Inc., St. Louis
Crowley said when he was in prison he would fight and be a tough guy to cover for the fact that he couldn’t read.
“Before I got locked up I could read basic words like the, this and that. I faked it and mimicked people. I watched a lot of movies. I watched lips, their ways and how they got money. I got locked up for drugs and sexual misconduct. I was a hustler all my life,” he said. “My father passed when I was 7; I am not saying my mother wasn’t good. As I got older I was a stupid kid. Today I try to give young brothers some knowledge that will keep them out of jail. Inside I got baptized and saved. People say that’s jailhouse or penitentiary saved. No, for me it’s the real deal.”
While incarcerated, “I learned to read better and my comprehension of the things I was reading grew. By the time I left, I was able to turn in one of the best essays written by prisoners. I got my GED. That was the happiest day of my life,” he said.
Crowley stayed six months longer than he was required to serve so he could get a certification in electrical work. “I wanted to learn residential wiring and electrical work,” he said.
Crowley said he learned that “negativity is like a magnet; it draws you in. Having a job gives me the opportunity to be a man, to feed my family and myself, to pay the bills and be a productive citizen. I don’t have to look over my shoulders because of how I get my money.”
Crowley said he is very thankful to Schreier and AMF for the opportunity they gave him. He said he will give all he has to give as an employee. He also hopes others will be like Schreier ... willing to give everyone a chance. And, those who need a second chance, Crowley said, “I hope they will get their chance, too.”
Carolyn P. Smith: 618-239-2503
At a glance
Here’s what you need to know about the 30-2-2 program:
- What: 30-2-2 is a program where local employers hire two ex-felons each for a minimum of two years.
- Contact: Chris Hoell, prevention and re-entry coordinator
- Where: U.S. attorney’s office, Fairview Heights
- More information: 618-628-3712