Editor’s note: The Philadelphia Tribune will examine the impact of the state’s new voter identification law, how it could affect different segments of Philadelphia’s population, and what they need to do to obtain the required identification. This article takes a look at how the law could impact ex-offenders.
An estimated 30,000 ex-offenders living in Philadelphia, the average number of people released from the county jail each year, could be disenfranchised by the state’s new voter ID law.
“The [state] Department of State talked about how they are targeting different groups to make sure they get their IDs, but they never talked about the hundreds of thousands of people who get discharged from prison each day across this state,” said Wayne Jacobs, director of X-offenders for Community Empowerment. “What is the strategy to make sure that those folks are not denied the opportunity to vote?”
State officials have broken down the problems most residents will face in trying to obtain an ID into three broad categories: people who once had a valid driver’s license that is now expired; Pennsylvania natives who have never had a state identification card; and registered voters, typically not born in Pennsylvania, who are unable to get a copy of their birth certificate.
State Rep. Cherelle Parker, chair of Philadelphia’s House delegation, held an informational meeting on Wednesday with officials from the state Department of State, members of the press and representatives from a number of community organizations in an effort to explain the new law.
Though the requirements are the same for ex-offenders as for other segments of the population, they will likely have to add a few additional steps to obtain a state ID.
“They follow the same procedures as anyone else,” said Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Department of State at the meeting this week.
Ex-offenders are eligible for a free, state identification card to vote, just like everyone else. And, Ruman said, they are very likely to fall into one of the three broad categories outlined by the state.
But, Jacobs pointed out that many lack the documents required by the state.
As an example, he pointed to the fact that the PennDOT requires a Social Security card, as well as one of the following: a valid passport, birth certificate with raised seal, or certificate of citizenship or naturalization. In addition, proof of residence is required in the form of an item such as a tax record document, a W-2 form or a utility bill.
It’s the last requirement that worries Jacobs.
“A person that’s just getting out of jail doesn’t have that,” he said, noting that many move back in with family members or friends.
Ruman said ex-offenders, who may be living with someone else and can’t prove where they live, should bring the person they live with to the PennDOT office with them.
“You bring an individual along that would have proof of residency,” Ruman said.
“So now mom has to take the day off work?” asked Jacobs.
The state has promised that people being released from state prisons will now be released with a valid state ID card that can be used at the polls in November,” said Megan Sweeney, special assistant at the state Department of State.
However, people being released from county jail are not guaranteed an ID. In Philadelphia, that could be as many as 30,000 people every year, said William Hart, executive director of the Mayor’s Office for Reintegration Services for Ex-offenders.
“It’s a significant portion of Philadelphia residents that may be disenfranchised because of a lack of ID,” Hart said.
Parker said her office would meet with local prison officials to see if a solution to the problem could be ironed out.
Ruman also noted that anyone wanting to vote in the upcoming election must be registered before they apply for an ID. The last day that Pennsylvanians can register to vote in the Nov. 6 election is Oct. 9.
A recent report by the state Department of State found that 18 percent of Philadelphians — or 186,830 of the city’s registered voters — do not have a photo ID that meets the state’s requirement to cast a ballot in November. Across the state, that number ballooned to 758,000 registered voters — or 9.2 percent of all registered voters.
The fifth Ex-Offenders Expo was held this week and several thousand people showed up with resumes to talk with prospective employers and participate in the helpful workshops.
To put the importance of the event in perspective, the population of Philadelphia was last estimated at 1.5 million and at any given time, that includes approximately 300,000 ex-offenders. Most of them need full-time employment, many confront substance abuse or mental health problems, and all of them readily admit that having been incarcerated is a major barrier to hurdle on their way to becoming productive members of the community.
“You’re asking me ‘why am I here?’ I need a decent job, it’s that simple,” said an expo attendee who would only give his name as John, age 54. He declined to state why he had been incarcerated, but said he’s had great difficulty finding jobs that pay a living wage. “I haven’t had a full-time job since 1986 so I’m hoping that my being here is going to change things. It gives me hope to see that the city is serious about this.”
More than 105 companies and organizations looking to hire ex-offenders had representatives at the event, which was held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and sponsored by the city. An earlier expo held two months ago had to be cancelled because of the overwhelming number of people who showed up. Tuesday’s expo went off without a hitch. PECO, Acme, Walmart, Wawa, Sam’s Club, Radio Shack and Modell’s were just a few of the companies accepting resumes and applications from participants. About 4,000 people pre-registered for the event and organizer William Hart, executive director of Reintegration Services for Ex-offenders (RISE) said another 1,500 people showed up hoping to take advantage of the opportunity.
“This event is the largest of its kind in the country,” Hart said. “We have 105 employers, 105 service providers and provided a half million dollars in free legal services for about 300 people through the expungement clinic. I really thank the mayor for supporting this effort. The challenges for this segment of the population are huge but those who confirmed and showed up, those who walked-in wanted to be there. There was so much hope displayed at the Convention Center. I had one guy walk up to me, who had done federal time and has been out for a year. He said this expo was the first time he could actually say that someone cared, that he had any sense of optimism.”
Mayor Michael Nutter said giving ex-offenders the chance to change their lives is not only the right thing to do but sensible.
“These people aren’t going to just go away. We’ve had 2,000 people show up and this event is just getting started. I’ve talked to employers who took a chance and hired someone who had previously been incarcerated and they told me it was one of the best decisions they made. They come in early and work hard. They know they’ve been given a second chance. You look around the Convention Center at these people and it really dispels the notion, the fantasy and the insult that people don’t want to work or they’re lazy or just want a hand-out. Most of the people up at State Road will eventually get out and come home. If they come back to the same bad friends and bad conditions why would we expect anything different to happen out of that? We have to change the factors in that equation.”
Thomas Harriston, 44, said he wasn’t expecting very much when he decided to take part in the expo. He said he served five years on an illegal gun charge and has had trouble finding employment. The conviction on his record has been a major barrier for him, he said.
“When you keep getting turned down for jobs it doesn’t do a lot for your self-esteem,” he said. “I can find a piece of a job but that ain’t going to help me do anything for my family, you know what I mean? I really wasn’t going to come out at first but I signed up and being here I can see that the city is making an effort to help people in my position. I made a mistake and I paid for it. It’s not right that I should have to pay for the rest of my life so I’m glad I came out.”
The mayor’s office of Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders or RISE organized the event. RISE’s offices are located at 34 South 11th St., Suite 600 and the city-run organization is dedicated to helping ex-offenders who want to help themselves change their lives. Their walk-in hours are Monday through Thursday between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Hart said the impact of ex-offender unemployment is the central issue to affecting public safety in Philadelphia.
“About 300,000 people in this city carry a previous conviction on their records. This is the population in the city that is the hardest to serve. They’re the ones living in generational poverty. People ask me why do I do this and I tell them it’s about my 7-year-old granddaughter. So she can go outside and play without being afraid; so she doesn’t have to be afraid her older brother is going to be shot, so she can go to the playground without what I call the pull of gravity that ex-offenders face. We must address the needs of folks who are hardest to serve. This is about improving public safety.”
For previously incarcerated men and women, acquiring a job that pays a living wage can be the difference between putting the past behind them and returning to a life of criminal activity.
But for those who have been behind bars and have returned to their communities, there are often peripheral issues that also stand as barriers to gainful employment. Literacy, substance abuse, mental health issues and a lack of marketable skills are just a few of the problems many ex-offenders have that may not have been adequately dealt with while they were incarcerated.
On Tuesday the Philadelphia Convention Center will open its doors for the Ex-Offender Expo sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services or R.I.S.E. The Expo features 100 employers, 100 service providers and a host of workshops designed to assist ex-offenders. The hitch is that attendees must pre-register for the event which runs from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Workshops include Literacy and Education, Legal Services, Interview Preparation and Expungement/Pardon and Explaining Your Criminal Record. The event is free and attendees should bring copies of their resume.
“You want to know just how important events like this are for ex-offenders? Right now Philadelphia leads the nation in poverty, which is about 30 percent. A large part of that population are ex-offenders. Philadelphia is one of the cities that also leads the nation in violence; so to the extent that we can remove barriers to employment for ex-offenders we can impact public safety,” said William Hart, executive director for R.I.S.E.
According to Hart there are approximately 300,000 ex-offenders in Philadelphia, and about 56 percent of them will turn back to criminal behavior and end up back in prison. Those numbers have an impact on the quality of life not just in poor neighborhoods, but the entire city.
“Without an opportunity to viable employment it’s very easy to fall back into crime. We’ve created a model where we’re bringing in clients that haven’t had a lot work experience in combination with having this attitude that most take for granted. Things like getting up and coming to work, being on time, having the proper attitude and doing the work on a daily basis.”
In Philadelphia, companies that hire ex-offenders to full-time jobs receive a tax credit up to $10,000 annually per employee for up to three years. Part-time employees entitle an employer to a $5,000 annual tax credit for up to three years.
A recent orientation session for ex-offenders at R.I.S.E. provides a snapshot of the depth of the problem. There were more than 80 people sitting in the large reception room, most of them Black males in their 20s and 30s. Two were Black females, a smaller number were Latino males, and one was a Caucasian man in his 40s. All of them needed jobs and hopes that the services provided by R.I.S.E. might actually help them rise above the bad choices they made and put the past behind them.
“Most of our participants are Black men,” said Hart. “To paint a picture of the mindset we’re working to change, I was up at Graterford not too long ago and I was speaking to an inmate who was obviously going through something. So I asked him what’s going on. He said he wasn’t making excuses for the things he did, but what really cut into him was that his son and grandson were serving time - three generations of one family. And the problem isn’t just finding them employment - but making them employable. It’s not an easy task, and in any given month I have to turn many of them away because we just don’t have the resources. We can refer them to other agencies, but the number of ex-offenders needing services is enormous. Look at it like this: 20 percent of Philadelphia’s residents have a felony conviction.”
According to the agency’s numbers, the performance statistics for R.I.S.E’s 2012 fiscal year are as follows: of 2,339 perspective clients, 559 were enrolled in the program, 253 were employed, and there was a 4 percent recidivism rate. Citywide, the recidivism rate hovers around 40 percent. According to the 2011 Pew study “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” the latest figures indicate that in spite of the increase in spending on corrections, many states have seen little improvement. The report said that if four out of ten adult ex-offenders return to prison within three years of their release, then the system designed to deter them is falling short.
“Many will argue that imprisonment is big business, yet what should be big with business are efforts of reintegration into society. This is the only way to reduce recidivism for our city,” said City Councilman Curtis Jones.
Hart said there are enormous long-term cost savings to society in lowering the recidivism rate. Hart said the federal government spends $750 billion on the nation’s prisons, but only about $65 billion on education.
“Nationally between 50 and 60 percent of ex-offenders will re-offend within three years. If, in the first year they return home, if we can attach them to employment and other needed services, the recidivism rate drops significantly and of course the streets become safer,” Hart said. “On the federal end the government spends about $750 billion for prisons, the state of Pennsylvania spends $2.3 billion. The city spends about $25 million on its prisons and all of this money comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket. Clearly, the mayor, the governor and the president would want to fund education, public recreation and other social services.”
State and local officials came together Oct. 3 to address specific issues facing female ex-offenders returning to society at the Divided by Bars, United by Love panel, hosted by mentoring program Sisters Returning Home.
The panel, featuring a range of legislators, policymakers and correctional professionals, was held at LaSalle University and focused on housing, GED, employment, program funding and new policies.
“I saw the need to bring the community together so we can see what the issues are and see how we can work as partners and get some answers,” said Peggy Sims, Sisters Returning Home founder. “We don’t want to just keep having discussions. We need real answers.”
The panelists, consisting of Secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, John Wetzel, Deputy Director of the Governor’s Southeastern Office, Karen Stokes, State Sen. LeAnna Washington, Parole Officer Adrienne Jones and William Hart, executive director of Re-Integration Services for Ex-offenders (RISE), discussed programming and answered questions from ex-offenders and community groups, who stressed the need for improved re-entry efforts.
One former inmate cited a need for increased access to job training classes within prison. She said she wasn’t able to take an “optical lab” offered in the jail because it excluded inmates preparing to leave the facility.
A representative from a local CareerLink said inmates needed more re-entry guidance before being released from prison.
Former inmate, Alesia Chaney, observed that some of the community transitional programs were only out “to help themselves,” and not the individual.
She said that she has been looking for a job since January and gets calls back when she submits her resume, but when she has to respond to questions about her criminal history, the application process comes to a dead end. Even so, she said she has gotten as far as she has because of her own efforts.
“It’s because of my own personal commitment, not giving up and pushing forward,” she said.
Secretary Wetzel said after the panel, the feedback would be studied and possibly used to inform program development. Some concerns, he said, are already being addressed.
“We’ve changed the process to measure outcomes to address the halfway houses. We’re developing an interactive map on jump drive so inmates can identify where [transitional] resources are. [And] we’re awarding contracts to community groups to mentor inmates while they are in prison and follow them when they get out,” Wetzel said. “We’re making progress, but it’s slow progress.”
Wetzel added in order to make re-entry as effective as possible, it would also require a solid effort from the community.
“Some of it lies within the department, but some of it also lies within the community,” he said. “[If] we can create an environment that folks can come back and be members of, we’re stronger as a community.”
For Washington, an ex-offender’s successful re-entry into society is also largely determined by their own efforts.
“You have to have a commitment to yourself and your family – that you want to do something different and change your life,” she said. “Because if you come out of prison and go back in eight months and say ‘because I can’t get a job, that is crap. The bottom line is that you have to be committed.”
It has been well-documented that the United States incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other industrialized nation.
Equally well reported is the racial disparity that has become an inherent factor in the rise of America’s prison populations, and that Black and Hispanic men represent the greatest number of inmates. But hidden in the swelling numbers of the nation’s incarcerated class are the rising numbers of women being sentenced to prison.
Research conducted by The Sentencing Project shows that between 1980 and 2011 the number of women being sentenced to prison rose a staggering 581 percent. And the numbers show that Black and Hispanic women are more likely to face a prison sentence than their white counterparts. Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project said the nation’s 30 year-plus War on Drugs has contributed to the rise of women being incarcerated.
“There are a number of factors at work in this but even more so the nation’s War on Drugs is the single major force putting women behind bars,” Mauer said. “When you look at who goes to prison and why these factors become more apparent. Women are less likely to be violent offenders but as the prison system expanded and drug offenses become a focal point in sentencing laws women were more likely to be involved. There was a greater probability that women would be caught up. In many of these cases we have what has become known as ‘the girlfriend problem.’ The woman has a boyfriend who is a drug dealer and she’s really just along for the ride. When he gets arrested investigators will push for him to cooperate and get a lesser sentence. So he cooperates but she’s in a limited position to offer any information. Who does she know? Well she knows her boyfriend and probably that’s it so she ends up doing more time than the boyfriend. Another aspect is there are limited programs for post-incarceration support which contributes to high rates of recidivism.”
According to Sentencing Project figures the number of incarcerated women increase by 587 percent between 1980 and 2011; rising from 15,118 to 111,387. That included women in local jails. More than 200,000 women are now incarcerated. The number of women in prison increased at nearly 1.5 times the rate of men – 637 percent – as opposed to 419 percent for the same span of years. Right now the lifetime likelihood of a woman being incarcerated is 1 in 19 for Black women and 1 in 45 for Hispanic women. White women by contrast stand a 1 in 118 chance of going to prison. From 2000 to 2010 the rate of incarceration dropped by 35 percent for Black women and increased 28 percent for Hispanic women and 38 percent for white women. Research also shows that women are more likely to be imprisoned for drug and property offenses.
But local, state and federal lawmakers are pushing for changes in sentencing laws, particularly when they apply to drug cases where the defendant is non-violent. Last week, State Representatives Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), introduced a House companion version of the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013; a bill that supporters say would give federal judges greater flexibility in assessing the cases of non-violent drug offenders. Such sentencing reforms could lead to a reduction in the female prison population. In terms of post incarceration support on the local level, programs like R.I.S.E. work to help previously incarcerated men and women overcome barriers to employment and housing.
Recently the Philadelphia Convention Center hosted the Ex-Offender Expo sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services or R.I.S.E. The Expo featured 100 employers, 100 service providers and a host of workshops designed to assist ex-offenders. Many of those attending the expo were women who had served time. According to William Hart, executive director for R.I.S.E. there are approximately 300,000 ex-offenders in Philadelphia and about 56 percent of them will turn back to criminal behavior and end up back in prison.
“Right now Philadelphia leads the nation in poverty, which is about 30 percent, a large part of that population are ex-offenders. Philadelphia is one of the cities that also lead the nation in violence; so to the extent that we can remove barriers to employment for male and female ex-offenders we can impact public safety,” Hart said.