How the state helps offenders
Peggy Lero, Kansas Parole Director for the Northern Region, said they take a three-step approach when helping inmates find work:
• Employment workshop: As an ex-offender begins looking for work, they learn how to create resumes and cover letters, answer questions about their offenses, and follow up on interviews.
• Job clubs: While job searching, ex-offenders meet up to share job tips and network for possible jobs.
• Employed group: Once they secure jobs, ex-offenders meet in order to offer peer support and help address any issues they may face out in the working world.
- The Northern Parole Region consists of the northern half of the state. Lero said they supervise about 2,800 ex-offenders, and the unemployment rate is about 30 percent.
Kara Martin, 33, of Lawrence said she used to get hired on the spot when she’d go to job interviews.
But following her first felony conviction — for identity theft in July — things have changed.
“I have not been able to get my foot past the door,” she said.
Now on probation, Martin is for the first time experiencing the struggles for job seekers with criminal backgrounds in today’s highly competitive job market.
“I have to check that box,” said Martin of the question on job applications that asks if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony.
“When they hear the word ‘felon,’ it becomes a mark,” said Steve Willis, probation officer with Douglas County Community Corrections.
Willis said one of his main tasks is getting probationers back to work. But in the current economic climate, that’s becoming more difficult, he said.
The tight job market leaves employers with more options, and with plenty of applicants without felony convictions, offenders get pushed down the ladder, he said.
“Their options are pretty limited,” said Willis, who estimates that about half the 200 people on his case load have jobs.
Society has an interest in helping offenders get back to work, said Michael Birzer, professor of criminal justice at Wichita State University, as employment is a huge key in preventing re-offending.
“Research has pretty much fleshed that out,” Birzer said. “Without the employment, in three or so years they’ll be back” in the criminal justice system.
But getting employers to consider hiring is a big obstacle. “Many companies won’t even look at them,” he said.
One federal program encourages businesses to take a chance on ex-offenders. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, businesses can receive up to a $2,400 Work Opportunity Tax Credit if they hire someone convicted of felony in the past year. In Kansas, businesses have applied for more than 1,100 of those tax credits since October 2010, said Joyce Heiman, Work Opportunity Tax Credit Program Manager with the Kansas Commerce Department. Depending on how long a felon works for the business, the 1,100 applications could have saved Kansas companies about $2.8 million.
Despite the tax credits, job seekers with felonies such as Martin are not finding many options. Martin — trying to support a 2-year-old daughter — said the frustration takes a toll.
“It’s very deterring,” she said. “I’ve gotten very depressed.”
Willis said offenders are forced to lower their standards when job searching, taking low-wage jobs they’re overqualified for.
“There are jobs out there,” Willis said. But “not necessarily the jobs they want.”
At this point, Martin said she’ll work just about anywhere. She said she’ll keep job hunting, but if nothing hits, she’ll take advantage of some vocational rehabilitation programs available to ex-offenders. But she knows the black mark from her crime will likely follow her.
“I realize that this is all my fault,” Martin said. But the stigma, and the bind it puts on her job search equate to “more than punishment.”
“All I need is a chance,” she said.
This is part four in a Journal-World series about local employment. To see the other parts, click on the links below: