About 150 on probation, parole attend Offender's Job Fair

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comApril 16, 2014 

Derek Boutwell, on probation for possession of methamphetamine, showed up Wednesday at an Offender's Job Fair looking for a job.

But when he arrived at 11:15 a.m. at the Day Reporting Center in Columbus, most of the employers were already gone.

The event, scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., was organized by the Georgia Department of Corrections in conjunction with the state Board of Pardons and Parole. It drew about 150 ex-offenders, along with nine companies and resource agencies.

But the job fair ended early because many employers couldn't stick around.

Boutwell, arrested on drug charges in 2009, said it's tough trying to find employment when you're an ex-offender. He said he's been clean two years and was a maintenance worker at the Columbus Housing Authority for eight months until recently when he was terminated because of his record.

"How long does somebody have to pay for what they've done?" he asked. "I've paid my dues. I did my probation. I did everything I'm supposed to do. I'm a great employee and I do my job very well no matter where it is."

Isabella Walker, a probation counselor who organized the event, said it was the department's first attempt at a job fair. She believes the number of participating employers will grow in the future.

Walker said 14 employers and resource organizations made a commitment to attend but some never showed up. Those that participated were Complete Facilities Management, Georgia Goodwill Industries, the Department of Labor, Labor Finders, McDonald's, NewLife-Second Chance Outreach, the River Center, Taco Bell and WIA.

About 120 people showed up between 9 and 10:30 a.m., forming a long line outside the building. The group consisted of probationers and parolees, many encouraged by officers to attend.

"One of the barriers for probationers and parolees is finding a job, and I felt there were employers in the community who would be willing to hire them," Walker said. "So I thought that bringing all those employers under one building, maybe they could make a connection."

Christina Parker, chief probation officer for the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, said offenders at the fair all had felonies on their records. But many are well qualified for employment.

"As far as our probationers go, we've got them from no experience to all the way up to bachelor's and master's degrees," she said. "Their talent and skills range depending on what offender we're talking about."

In a flyer for the job fair, officials listed several benefits for hiring probationers. They include: employees available to work even on weekends, pre-screening for drugs and a variety of skills. A federal bonding program for employees and tax credits for employers were also advertised.

Walker said she wasn't aware of anyone being hired on Wednesday, but several employers collected applications. She said Labor Finders planned to interview some attendees at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Others signed up for interviews next Tuesday at Taco Bell.

Tanya Llano, a human resources administrative assistant at Complete Facilities Management, said she collected about 40 applications for janitorial and flooring work. She hopes to hire four or five people.

Llano said she's hired offenders before and it always worked out.

"I've never had any problems," she said. "I think it's a good way of helping them get back into society and giving people a second chance."

Waleisah Wilson, founder and president of NewLife-Second Chance Outreach, said her organization helps ex-offenders turn their lives around. She attended the fair to provide information, but said she was disappointed in the low turnout from employers.

"I wish there would have been more employers here," she said. "That was very discouraging, but I think if we continue to do this again, eventually it will get better."

Wilson said everyone benefits when offenders are employed.

"About 98 percent of these people are going to return (from prison) and come back into the community," she said. "And when they come back, they're going to be your neighbor, my neighbor and everybody else's neighbor. So why not try and help them get a job?"

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