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USA Today on 11/6/2019
William Troutman Jr., 46, got his second chance at a recycling center. He started as a picker on the presort line, then he got his forklift certification. He was recently promoted.
He makes $10.50 per hour working the floor where recycled material gets compressed and shipped away.
“This place opened the doors when they didn’t have to for a lot of offenders, and opening doors really gives offenders a new light,” he said.
Troutman said he first become involved in the justice system at 16 in the early 1990s.
Last year, he was caught selling drugs to make money to get out of medical debt from a collapsed lung. He was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon.
“It wasn’t right, but it was a choice I made on my own,” he said.
After his trial last month, Troutman will serve four years of house arrest and two years of probation. That won’t keep him from working at Ray’s Trash Service.
In a tight hiring market from low unemployment, more ex-offenders such as Troutman are finding jobs than before. Scott Whiting, the Indianapolis branch manager of Allegiance Staffing, said more employers are embracing the labor source.
“This is the most felon-friendly time in my 20 years of doing this work,” said Gregg Keesling, president of Recycle Force, a business that specifically hires ex-offenders.
Wages are on par with those without a criminal record, said Lena Hackett, president of Community Solutions. Those who have been incarcerated can expect to make the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour up to $16 per hour.
At Public Advocates in Community Re-entry or PACE, Executive Director Rhiannon Edwards said open jobs and employers looking for ex-offenders far outnumber the number of prepared candidates, nearly triple what it was three years ago.
Why employers turn to ex-offenders
It’s a stark shift from when the organization, which primarily works with people with a record of felony or multiple misdemeanors, struggled to match ex-offenders with jobs. With the support of the Indy Chamber, PACE has had the luxury of primarily placing ex-offenders in jobs that pay above minimum wage, Edwards said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Indianapolis, Carmel and Anderson unemployment rate is about 3%, a significant decrease from five years ago when the rate was closer to 6%.
In jails and prisons, Indiana’s incarcerated population is growing.
According to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice, the national prison population decreased by 1.3% from 2017 to 2018. But in Indiana, the population increased by 3.3%.
Hackett said many employers are willing to look past charges such as possession of drugs, minor assaults, driving under the influence and public intoxication.
“It really becomes a barometer of how long has it been since then and what you’ve done since then,” Hackett said.
Not all employers have found successful employees or been able to accommodate the challenges of hiring the formerly incarcerated.
At DECO Coatings, President Janet South described hiring the formerly incarcerated as a “revolving door.” Many ex-offenders show up late, often wearing sneakers instead of their steel-toed boots. After giving out raises, South said some workers become complacent and start missing work with excuses such as toothache.
“Many of these folks – to report to a job every day and do a full day’s work and then leave – that is all new to them. It’s a whole different cultural shock,” she said.
Whiting said his company, which matches people with manufacturing and warehouse companies, finds the right candidates by partnering with community organizations, which vet and recommend ex-offenders for employment.
“Who among us doesn’t need a second chance at some point?” he said. “Maybe it’s better to hire someone who’s paid their dues than someone who hasn’t been caught yet.”
A network of support and training
To be considered “job ready” at PACE, ex-offenders have to fulfill a checklist of requirements, such as having reliable transportation, child care and housing and any substance abuse and mental health issues under control. Employers can feel burned if they hire a series of unsuccessful workers, Edwards said.
Whiting emphasizes to ex-offenders that at their next workplace, they’ll need to demonstrate a good attitude, the willingness and ability to learn and most importantly, good attendance.
It’s important to have employers who understand that ex-offenders are adjusting from another life.
Whiting said supervisors should understand that discipline needs to be done sensitively, with an understanding that ex-offenders may have trauma from correctional facilities.
Supervisors should know that in prison, people’s identities become attached to their possessions, which can affect the workplace, Whiting said. When gloves or company helmets are handed out, ex-offenders may be reluctant to switch with those they were initially assigned.
Working with batteries and appointments
Beyond a culture fit, employers have to accommodate ex-offenders’ schedule of parole meetings and drug tests, which are ordered randomly and on short notice.
At DECO Coatings, South said workers have neglected to tell managers about pre-scheduled parole meetings so many times that the company keeps contact information on each ex-offender’s case manager.
Wearing an ankle bracelet, either for GPS monitoring or as a part of a home detention schedule, presents a logistical challenge. A low battery or poor service can register someone as out of compliance, which can result in a visit from police and a disruption in schedule.
Ankle bracelets must be charged for an uninterrupted hour every 12 to 16 hours, said Tyler Bouma, executive director of Marion County Community Solutions, which oversees the program. The recommended schedule is one hour of charging in the morning, one hour in the evening.
Multiple employers said that often ex-offenders work in areas without good service – in elevators, underground or in warehouses – and the bracelets will indicate they’re out of compliance.
At Recycle Force, most of the 88 ex-offenders hired wear an ankle bracelet. If they start going off, Keesling said the workers know to call their case manager and go outside.
Questions about ankle bracelets
Indianapolis has embraced the use of GPS tracking devices to allow people to serve sentences out of jail and be monitored while awaiting trial.
There are about 4,300 residents wearing ankle bracelets. About 1,200 people await trial while the others wear them as a part of their conviction. The number has largely held steady since 2017, Bouma said.
The use of ankle bracelets boomed in the years after 2013 when the Indiana General Assembly passed House Enrolled Act 1006, Hackett said. The legislation led to more people with low-level offenses sentenced to county jails instead of state prisons. That led to overcrowding in county jails, so offenders were released with ankle bracelets.
According to Hackett, who helps coordinate the Marion County Reentry Coalition, a coalition of employers, parole officers and other stakeholders raised concerns that ankle bracelets are a burden to accommodate and may not be necessary for those with lower-level offenses or people awaiting trial.
Bouma said he is interested in reexamining the use of ankle bracelets for people awaiting trial.
Bouma said the monitors are an important tool for those who could be a danger to the public, but those people are innocent until proven guilty. Whether someone gets a device before trial is up to the judge, he said.
“Ultimately, that’s not my decision to make. Our agency doesn’t decide who comes to us,” Bouma said.