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Re-entry key in city's plot to fight crime: Mayor makes push, hires director to help more ex-convicts find work

September 1, 2008

Makeba Averitte spent more than seven years incarcerated in Indiana, Kentucky and Oklahoma prisons paying for the robbery he committed as a young man with few prospects.

Since his release in 2004, the 32-year-old has obtained a driver's license and insurance on his automobile, not to mention a bit more wisdom. But what eludes him most-even more so now as a convicted felon-is a steady, goodpaying job.

Tired of temporary work, he enrolled in Second Chance at the United Northeast Community Development Corp. on East 38th Street. The program is a beneficiary of a state contract to train Hoosiers, particularly minorities, for jobs in the construction industry.

"I made mistakes, and I learned from them," Averitte said. "I want to be a benefit to the company."

It's former convicts like him that the city of Indianapolis is targeting with its re-entry effort unveiled by Mayor Greg Ballard earlier this year. Directed by Khadijah Muhammad, a former state Department of Correction official, the initiative aims to get them employed and, ultimately, to reduce city crime rates.

With no way to pay for obligations such as child support, probation costs and court fees, the only option some exoffenders see is a return to crime.

"We see unemployment and public safety as cousins," Muhammad said.

Ballard appointed Tony Dungy in late July as honorary chairman of the re-entry effort. The head coach of the Indianapolis Colts is well-known for mentoring men behind bars and last year was named to the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation.

The city is revising its employment manuals to give supervisors greater leniency in hiring ex-offenders and to be more forgiving when they must attend sessions related to court requirements. It is also exploring an ordinance that would give preference to companies that employ exoffenders when they bid on city contracts.

In addition, the city hosted a job fair in early August that drew 27 employers and more than 200 candidates who completed employment workshops the previous day. Eleven were hired on the spot, Muhammad said.

Shiel Sexton Co. Inc. was among the participating companies. The local construction contractor hired a few men from the fair to work as concrete finishers-not out of necessity but out of compassion, Vice President Kevin Potter said.

"They're not lifetime criminals; they are people who made a mistake," he said. "I don't have a problem giving them a chance."

As a member of the city's re-entry task force, Potter hopes others will as well.

Job market tightens

The challenge is daunting, however. More than 27,000 inmates are incarcerated in Indiana prisons-91 percent of whom are men. Of the 5,200 released from prisons and into Marion County every year, 74 percent will commit another crime within three years of being released, according to the Department of Correction.

Re-entry programs are not new, but few large cities have gone to the extent Indianapolis has, experts say. The large number of ex-offenders flowing into the county makes the city's initiative even more significant, said David Burch, DOC director of re-entry. Even so, the programs can only do so much.

"It's truly going to be up to the offenders and how they're going to present themselves during the interview process," he said, "not to mention there are employers who will turn the other cheek when they see that felony."

Indeed, roughly 70 percent of private companies refuse to hire felons, no matter what the crime, a 2006 report from the School of Public & Environmental Affairs at IUPUI found.

On top of that, a sour economy could be an additional factor. Indiana's unemployment rate in July rose to 6.3 percent, above the national average of 5.7 percent.

A market for former convicts still exists, but it tightened up even before the latest economic slowdown, argued prominent reentry advocate Gregg Keesling.

He founded Keys To Work Inc., a staffing company at 3602 E. Michigan St. in Indianapolis, in 1996. A loss of federal and state funding prompted him to launch Workforce Inc. in 2003. Rather than placing ex-offenders, it temporarily employs them through contracts to tear down old computers whose parts are resold to recyclers.

Keesling blames 9/11 for the reluctance that exists within the business community.

"Before, there was a lot more flexibility," he said. "Background checks have gotten much more tighter."

His Workforce not-for-profit has employed more than 150 people, the majority of whom have graduated to permanent jobs in the construction, janitorial, food service and recycling sectors.

Construction work typically pays better and presents more opportunities than other industries that employ ex-offenders, Keesling said.

Construction jobs targeted

That's what makes programs such as Second Chance so vital. Co-founded by Rudy Hightower, a former director of the city housing agency during the Hudnut administration, Second Chance has been helping the disadvantaged find jobs for several years.

Not until recently, though, did its attention turn to the construction trades. The origins can be traced to the state's lease of the Indiana Toll Road to an Australian-Spanish consortium for nearly $4 billion for new road projects, an initiative known as Major Moves.

From that arose Major Opportunities, a pre-apprenticeship program geared toward minorities. The state dedicated $12 million over six years to the effort.

Through the Associated Builders and Contractors of Indiana, a recipient of a state contract, Second Chance began conducting training sessions last year. Since then, roughly 200 students, most of whom have criminal records, have completed the course. Twenty-three are participating in the current class, held in the basement of the Northeast CDC, in a building once that was a bank branch.

"I don't care who it's with," Hightower said, "we're going to work with them to try to put people to work."

Averitte, the 32-year-old former convict, hopes he'll be one of the program's success stories. But for now, he just takes it "day by day," waiting for the next opportunity.
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