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California DOC Under Fire For Ex-Con Job Placements

In March 2003, California lawmakers launched an investigation seeking information as to why the state Department of Corrections (DOC) assisted in placing former prisoners in jobs that were termed questionable and inappropriate. DOC officials were called to testify and answer questions at a full policy and budget committee hearing on March 28.

In addition, the state Assembly's Select Committee on Prison Construction and Operations was to soon conduct its own hearing on the matter. "If there are regulations the department is not following or they are shortcutting any of the (regulations), that should be addressed," said Mark Leno (D), chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

Among the job placements sparking the investigations and hearings include a paroled rapist getting a job as a security guard, a felony drunk driver placed as a limousine driver, and a convicted child molester getting work as a youth corps worker.

Other questionable placements: a man convicted of kidnapping landed work in a boys home, a burglar being hired as a locksmith, a car thief hired on washing cars, and a paroled robber hired as an assistant boy scout leader.

But the case drawing the majority of the attention and outrage was the case of the kidnapper being sent to work at a boy's home. In that case Jobs Plus one of the three private agencies contracted by DOC to conduct referrals and job placements for ex-prisoners sent a man who had served eight years for kidnapping to one of its subcontractors for a work referral. The subcontractor, the Northern California Service League, looked at the man's referral sheet, which was filled out by the parole agent. On the form the agent is supposed to list the man's crime along with any job restrictions.

But, according to copies of the form obtained by the local newspaper, both spaces were left blank. So the Northern California Service League took the man's word that his latest charges were drug possession and drug sales. The man did have a long history of drug charges.

Later, however, the kidnapper revealed his most current charge, but was still allowed by the agency to continue working at the New Ideas Community Home for abused, neglected and abandoned boys.

After the disclosure, Service League Executive Director Shirley Melincoe defended the decision to place the man at the boy's home. Melincoe described the children as runaways and "incorrigible. They probably need role models. It's not like they are nice little young toddlers who are very vulnerable," she said.

The boy's home owner, Keith St. Clare, said the home is state-licensed and each employee is required to submit fingerprints. But employees are allowed to continue to work while their fingerprints are being processed, which can take up to two months. St. Clare admitted the man disclosed the kidnapping conviction to him but, believing he deserved a second chance, allowed him to stay. The man, however, was back in prison within two months on a parole violation.

Safeguards that are supposed to keep parolees from obtaining inappropriate or potentially dangerous jobs are not being followed. Also, parolees are coached by job counselors on how to be intentionally vague, yet truthful, regarding their criminal history during job interviews.

The state-hired job placement agencies rarely tell potential employers about a parolee's criminal past, expecting the employer to find out for themselves. Not all employers take the time or spend the money to do so.

State-paid vocational counselors instruct future parolees on the art of evading or dodging questions regarding crimes which might scare an employer or make them ineligible for certain work to be vague but technically truthful.

Most prison systems nationwide have some type of job-placement program for ex-prisoners. Experts say that whether or not a parolee returns to prison largely depends upon their success in finding adequate employment. Jonathan Simon, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law and author of Poor Discipline: Parole and the Social Control of the Underclass, said that isolating ex-convicts rather than giving them gainful employment poses a greater danger to them and the community.

"A lot of people would take the view they shouldn't have any jobs," he said. But "do we keep pushing them away and hope they don't" commit more crimes?

Perhaps a lot of the problem with the California System is that private job-placement agencies such as Job Corps have state contracts that pay them per job placement, an incentive not to be thorough in screening applicants. Job Corps is paid $560 for each parolee who gets a job, and job counselors are supposed to ensure that a parolee is not given employment that would conflict with his criminal past. But due to the monetary disincentive to reject a potential job placement, many ex-prisoners land inappropriate jobs. A number of placements were so troubling that DOC officials spent many months conducting their own probe before releasing any information to the media.

Parole agents were ordered via a February 3 memo to review and audit every job placement. "The [DOC's] preliminary review . . . indicates that some parolees, based on their commitment offense, may have been inappropriately employed," the memo read.

DOC spokesman Russ Heimerich blames much of the problem on heavy caseloads and inevitable mistakes. He noted a typical job placement counselor is responsible for 79 parolees. "We're not going to sit here and tell you that inappropriate placements do not happen," Heimerich said. "We're also not going to sit here and tell you that we keep a constant vigil on all our [job] vendors. The opportunity for some lapses do occur."

St. Clare says he's finished dealing with the job placement agency, expressing frustration at their lack of candor. "We have ceased having involvement with [them] because we feel there was not enough cooperation, disclosure and follow-through," said St. Clare.

But Melincoe counters that employers do not have a need to know the specifics of what a potential employee has been convicted of. "As long as it has nothing to do with their ability to perform the job, it's probably better they don't know," she said. "Our role is not to tell you everything that's wrong with the person, but everything that is right. If I go on and give you his rap sheet, would you hire him?"

Officials are also investigating up to eight job placements that were reported and paid for, but never occurred. It was reported that the state paid up to $4,400 for the fictitious placements. Part of the problem may stem from "indirect placements," where the parolee uses the training given by job counselors to land his own job. Jobs Plus director Shel Weisman insisted his placements are confirmed twice and that any mistakes in reporting are unintentional. Jobs Plus was paid $2.8 million in 2002 to find work for 4,000 parolees.

The DOC cancelled its contract with Jobs Plus effective May 31, 2003, ending what was a 16-year relationship. DOC will put the contract out for bid, which will include many more restrictions restrictions Jobs Plus was not willing to accept. But state Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R) said that replacing Jobs Plus was not the solution. He said the Department of Corrections needed to do a better job themselves overseeing ex-felons.

The California legislature is now considering a bill that would make it a parole violation for ex-prisoners to withhold their criminal history from their employers. "A parolee is going to think twice about lying for a job," said Spitzer. A sure means of ensuring the successful reintegration of prisoners back into society.

Source: The Orange County Register

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