Job training for ex-cons isn't the first thing most people would associate with the federal justice system, known for high conviction rates and prison terms generally longer than in state court.
But a program run by the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Office allows its employees to do exactly that, and it's shown to be effective.
The Workforce Development Services program was created in Pittsburgh in 2005 after newly appointed U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti asked the chief probation officer about programs to help ex-offenders find jobs.
"It hit me that 'Yeah, that's what we were supposed to be doing,' " said Ted Johnson. "We're law enforcement, but we're also social work. Trying to reintegrate people can't be done just through law enforcement."
What became of that conversation is a program that started out with 39 ex-offenders and now includes 150 of the district's approximately 900 people who are on some form of federal supervision.
And the success rate has been significant.
In a district where the average rate of recidivism is about 18 percent over one year -- which is lower than the national rate of 33 percent over three months -- the program's reoffense rate is less than 5 percent.
"It really is crime prevention at its core," Mr. Johnson said.
Judge Conti, who serves as the chair of the program's advisory board, agreed that it benefits not only the individual defendants but the system as well.
"This is a public safety issue," she said. "Think of all the crimes that haven't been committed because of this program.
"You see very tangible evidence that these programs work."
Beginning today, the Pittsburgh office will serve as host to nearly 1,000 people from the federal Bureau of Prisons, probation offices and community partners at the annual Defendant/Offender Workforce Development conference at the Hilton Pittsburgh hotel Downtown.
One of the unusual aspects of the Pittsburgh office's program is its educational component, which aims to provide ex-offenders with job skill training that will prepare them to start in a position, continue to advance and build a career.
The probation office has allied with such educational programs as schools for commercial truck driving, pet grooming, machinist training and cosmetology.
Free tuition is a huge benefit to participants. So far, the Workforce Development Services program has raised more than $250,000 in tuition money.
"We've really had to be creative," said Scott Albert, who runs the program.
Working with instructors at All-State Career School, they devised a weeklong program that allowed participants to earn a Class B commercial driver's license, which permits them to drive buses, box trucks and other similar vehicles.
About 30 people from the program have graduated from All-State. Of those, about 85 percent are working.
"The trucking industry is a very forgiving industry," said Brian Estocin, who oversees admissions at the school. "If you prove you're a hard worker, you're going to get rewarded."
The average wage earned by someone with a Class B license, Mr. Estocin said, is $14 per hour. With a Class A license, that jumps to about $17.
For people in the probation program as a whole, the average pay rate is about $10 per hour -- $3.45 more than minimum wage.
"We weren't looking for statistics. We were looking for a living wage," Mr. Johnson said.
The idea is for participants to make enough to try to support themselves and family, but also pay back court-ordered restitution and fines.
Other issues addressed by the program include life skills -- such as how to get a driver's license or state identification, find appropriate housing and make a budget.
"Some of these folks are just floating around out there, and they're lost. They don't have anyone to help them through," Mr. Albert said. "It truly is a journey to self-sufficiency."
Employers who participate in the program receive a $2,400 tax break for each ex-offender they hire, though many don't take advantage of it, Mr. Albert said.
Instead, he said, they appreciate that they're hiring a trained worker who comes with a probation officer who is a sort of handler.
"Our guys are filtered. They're ready to go," Mr. Johnson said. "There is a sort of zero tolerance for anyone going on the job and messing up."
Fred Landay, a co-owner of the Appliance Warehouse, said he hires ex-offenders as a way to do his part for society.
"One of the biggest forms of charity out there today -- bar none -- is to give someone a job," he said.
His 70,000-square-foot warehouse employs 10 people from the federal program and five from a similar county-run one.
"Their attitudes, overall, are better than workers who have been here for a while," he said. "These ex-offenders are grateful."
Mr. Landay is careful in what positions he places them. If someone is convicted of a sex crime, he said, that person would have limited exposure to the public and would make no home deliveries.
And he's not letting anyone guilty of financial crimes keep his books.
But, he said, he believes that a person can be rehabilitated.
Mr. Johnson agrees.
"One of the problems we ran into was [business owners saying], 'I'll hire an ex-offender when you hire an ex-offender.' So we did that," he said.
The community resource specialist now running the Erie program was a convicted felon, although he recently was pardoned.
The program has grown so much that it now has nonprofit and community partners outside the federal court system. Groups like the YWCA, Mon-Valley Initiative and Urban League have all signed on to the advisory board.
"It became a lot larger than I really ever thought it would," Mr. Johnson said.
Paula Reed Ward can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2620.