Second Chance support grows despite legislative setback

By Kevin Zimmerman

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Although Gov. Dannel Malloy’s highly touted “Second Chance 2.0” initiative failed to receive legislative approval this year, the original Second Chance reform movement marches on in Connecticut.

It appears to be gathering momentum, with ex-offenders ranging from drug dealers to the mayor of Bridgeport extolling the virtues of having another opportunity at being a law-abiding citizen.

Second Chance 2.0 was designed to build upon Malloy’s original “Second Chance Society” legislation that was signed into law last summer. Among other things, that initiative reclassified simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor; eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug possession, expedited parole hearings for people convicted of nonviolent crimes and simplified the pardon process.

Malloy’s proposed addition would have reduced bail for minor crimes, raised the age people are considered juvenile offenders to 20 and expanded the reach of a record-expunging youthful offender law.

“On a typical day there are approximately 350 prisoners in our state’s jails who are charged only with a nonviolent misdemeanor but who are too poor to post even a small bond,” Malloy said during a relentless push to shore up support for 2.0 at the end of May. “The vast majority of these defendants will spend a month or two waiting for their cases to be resolved in court and will then be released directly from court. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Gauging Second Chance’s success at reducing recidivism is difficult. How much credit, if any, it deserves for the drop in Connecticut’s violent crime rate – now at its lowest since 1974 – remains uncertain. However, no one is arguing that the time and money invested in Second Chance and similar efforts are for naught.

“Aren’t we all entitled to a second chance?” said Joseph Carbone, president and CEO of The WorkPlace, an employment organization in Bridgeport with several reentry programs for ex-cons. “The whole point of our justice system is that once you’ve paid your price, you come out and get to start again. All of us have received, at one time or another, another chance.”

“People who have had some dealing with the criminal justice system are becoming a greater part of our workforce,” added Bill Villano, executive director of Workforce Alliance in New Haven. “We have developed a specific program for that population that includes workshops and provides support throughout the rehabilitation, parole, and probation processes.”

Both organizations were hopeful about 2.0’s chances, but said its failure will not have an impact on them. “We were hoping the state would support the initiative and make the funding available to expand the program,” Villano said. “I was disappointed that didn’t happen, but it does not directly affect us at this time.”

Both nonprofits rely on prisoner interest, tips from parole and probation officers and word-of-mouth to gather candidates, who are then put through rigorous workshops to gauge their commitment to rehabilitation. “These are tough programs, almost like boot camps,” said Carbone.

“A few go through orientation or a workshop and decide it’s not for them,” Villano said. “They can have pretty high expectations.”

Candidates are taught skills in how to present themselves at job interviews, building a resume, and answering questions in a professional and truthful manner.

“At some point they’re going to hear, ‘Tell us about your felony’,” said Carbone. “You can’t mince words. You have to give the best possible answer that’s truthful.”

Workforce Alliance earlier this year opened an American Job Center at the New Haven Correctional Center, with a goal of taking 175 prisoners through training and referring them to available jobs over an 18-month period. Villano said he hopes the experiment will be successful enough to be repeated at other correctional facilities around the state.

Jason Scott, who spent 8 1/2 years behind bars for attempted robbery and parole violation, is American Job Center beneficiary. In April he got a job at Splash Hand Wash of Fairfield and in the next few weeks will open his own car detailing business, Exquisite Auto Shine, in space rented from a New Haven car wash.

“I was 25 years old when I went inside, and now I’m 33,” Scott said. “I’m from the streets, I call myself a hustler. I didn’t have an education. So when I came home, I just wanted a little help, but as a violent offender it’s hard when you seek employment. I went to McDonald’s, Walmart, went in for warehouse jobs – no one wanted to give me a chance. It was very frustrating.’

Release last November, Scott was placed in a halfway house where he said he “never got any helplp from them.” But he praised Workforce Alliance, which he said has helped him not only find employment but also assisted him with the cost of bus passes and train tickets, clothing – and renewing his self-confidence.

“I’ve put all that baggage behind me,” Scott said. “Within a few weeks I’ll have my own business, my own car and my own apartment.”

Scott said his manager at Splash, Anthony Buchanan, is “like a mentor or big brother to me. He knows that frustration is a part of it but that you can’t let that get you down. He gets it – the hurt and the disappointment I experienced.”

“I was one of them,” said Buchanan. “I did federal and state time myself” – for selling narcotics – “so I know what it is to be one of those guys and getting a second chance.”

Buchanan said he’d “hired quite a few” former offenders at Splash, noting that another recently left the car wash for a higher-paying job. “It’s a great situation for me, being in a position to give someone else an opportunity. That’s how I see it and how I live it.”

Another ex-offender given a second chance in society is Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim, who this month announced his own Second Chance initiative.

“It’s no secret that I’m one of those people,” said Ganim, who was convicted in 2003 on federal felony corruption charges while serving his fifth term as mayor. “Bridgeport is a second chance city – nobody knows that better than me.”

“When you get out of jail, you just want an opportunity. I wanted to be a lawyer again.” But when the state Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that Ganim could not be reinstated as an attorney, he ran for and won a sixth term as mayor.

Ganim has asked the Bridgeport City Council to support a budget transfer of $50,000 in the form of a challenge grant that would be used in partnership with the nonprofit community and private sector to leverage millions of dollars in grants to put in place a comprehensive Second Chance program in the city.

“Our goal,” he said, “is to reduce employment barriers for ex-offenders who are willing to step up to the challenge and who are ready to work, who only need a fair chance at a job. We know that nationally feelings are changing on this issue, but we have an obligation on the local level now to step up and take the lead.”

Also at he press conference was state Sen. Ed Gomes (D-Bridgeport), who told the crowd that in 1953 at the age of 17 he was sentenced to a maximum of two years in prison for breaking into a restaurant and stealing sandwiches. Upon his release, he tried to join the military; only after an unusually long process did the Army finally accept him.

“The system just screws with you,” he said. “All we want is to give people a job, their families a second chance.”

Companies supporting the mayor’s initiative include Bridgeport-based employment center Career Resources Inc. and Santa Fuel Inc., as well as Stratford’s Hubbell Electric Heater Co. The University of Bridgeport and Housatonic Community College have also reportedly pledged their support.

While the road to reentry can still be a difficult one, the fact that most people know someone who’s gone through the criminal justice system has helped change attitudes, according to job-placement executives.

“We’re better off than we were five years ago,” said Carbone at The WorkPlace. “It’s taken years to get this far, but more and more employers are willing to at least talk about it. A few years ago, it was almost embarrassing – we’d hold meetings to discuss what we were doing and invite maybe 15 employers, and one or two or sometimes no one would show up. Now major political figures and other citizens are beginning to understand the issue.”

“Sometimes the employer himself or someone in his family has had some involvement with the criminal justice system and seen firsthand how important something like this can be to someone,” said Villano, who estimated that Workforce has placed about 1,600 ex-offenders. “The most exciting part is that more and more employers are willing to give people that chance.”

“But it’s still a tough population to deal with,” he added. “We want to produce somebody who can help them [employers]. There are so many individuals available that they may have to make some compromises in accepting ex-offenders into their workforce.”

Villano said that Workforce is currently hitting its goal of placing 150 ex-convicts per year. Still, “We have more business than we can handle.”

Carbone agreed, noting that hundreds of ex-offenders enter Bridgeport each year seeking legitimate employment. “That’s a lot of folks,” he said, “but the fact remains that the best program to avoid recidivism is a job.”

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