Pittsburgh's U.S. Attorney urges employers to hire ex-offenders

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Private employers should consider following the lead of the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and "ban the box" that often prevents the hiring of felons, U.S. attorney David Hickton said Monday in a speech to a gathering of corrections officials.

"If you give someone a shot after they've made a mistake, they often become your best employee," Mr. Hickton told attendees at a Pennsylvania Association of Probation, Parole and Corrections training institute at the Sheraton Station Square. Offenders "are coming out, and we have a choice. We can take steps when they come out to give them a chance, or we can cycle them right back into the system."

Pittsburgh late last year followed Philadelphia's lead of a year earlier, when city council passed legislation sponsored by Ricky Burgess to end the practice of asking job candidates to check a box indicating whether they are felons. The legislation doesn't apply to the police bureau, but does extend to city vendors.

Mr. Hickton said so-called "ban the box [legislation] has been helpful in giving offenders the opportunity to compete for jobs." Typically, he said, such legislation doesn't prevent employers from asking candidates about their criminal history at some point after the first interview but before the decision to hire.

He cited the shale gas and cyber security industries as opportunities for ex-offenders to make good.

Mr. Hickton said that the United States' out-sized share of the world's prison population suggests a problem: "Either we are the greatest collection of criminals, or we are over-incarcerating people." Among the most effective ways to reduce incarceration is to improve the job prospects of those who served their sentences.

More than two-thirds of state prisoners who are released are rearrested within three years, he said. He said there is growing evidence that well-thought-out programs and diverse coalitions can dramatically reduce recidivism.

He acknowledged that building such coalitions and implementing programs isn't easy.

The federal court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, for instance, in 2010 launched the Reentry Into Society Effort, or RISE court, which provides a year of education, job development and intense treatment and supervision to some federal offenders. "The number of individuals that we've been able to take through the program has been relatively small, and we need to do a better job," he said.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. First Published May 20, 2013 11:15 AM


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