City Hall struggles to get an aid program off the ground.
Ex-offenders looking for a job in a weak economy aren't getting the help they'd hoped for from City Hall.
It became official this week on Tax Day, with a report that the city's tax incentive program to encourage the hiring of former prisoners had not enrolled a single business in its first year. Officials suggested the program’s requirements might have scared off employers. But service providers and advocates familiar with the program say that there are deeper problems -- and that process has been disorganized and confusing from the get-go.
Pamela Superville, a program manager with the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s Philly ReNew program, says that the city never told employers how they could benefit from the Philadelphia Re-entry Employment Program. Superville says that a May 2008 summit on reentry attracted a lot of interest from potential employers but left participants confused and frustrated.
At that meeting, Superville says, City Revenue Examiner Tilahun Afessa was charged with explaining the program to potential employers -- but was unable to answer many questions. She says Carolyn Harper -- then chief of staff of the Mayor’s Office for the Reentry of Ex-Offenders -- eventually stopped the meeting. Harper asked for people’s contact information and pledged to convene a second meeting. Nearly a year later, Superville says, that meeting still has not taken place.
“The confusion and lack of information that employers got from summit was a real turnoff for employers," Superville says. "And a second meeting was never held,”
Harper acknowledges that some were not happy with the meeting but says that Afessa “did a pretty good job. But there were some questions he couldn’t answer. There was more complaining than I would have expected.” She also says that a follow-up meeting was held later last year, although she could not recall when it took place. Attempts to contact Afessa were unsuccessful.
Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison says that he has not heard any complaints about the meeting. MORE, he says, has held a number of meetings with employers and service providers.
And, Gillison adds, the economic crisis has taken a toll on all city programs.
“We’re having an economic disaster here. A lot of the funding for programs and operations we have planned on using to fund direct providers has simply evaporated. But we think we’ll weather the storm,” he says.
Further complicating matters, Superville and others were later surprised to find out that her clients would not be eligible for the program anyway. As PW reported in an article last month, City Hall angered many by announcing that benefits would be limited to employers who hired graduates of the MORE program. The provision was not part of the program when it was initially announced -- and was not necessarily the intent of the law City Council passed to create the program, which states that ex-offenders must complete a “package of basic education and job training and retention and support services that the city has designed for the ex-offender.”
But Gillison says that other programs other than MORE can send graduates into PREP; it is simply a matter of incorporating non-profits into the city’s managed response network. In response, Superville said “What is the managed response network?” Harper says that a few organizations were recently “credentialed” to take part in the network, but that the names cannot be made public until the groups are formally notified.
MORE manages programs for former prisoners, but other city agencies, such as the Revenue Department, were responsible for implementing various aspects of PREP. As an Inquirer piece reported last December, most provisions never got implemented.
City Council passed the 2007 law, which Nutter enthusiastically supported, to great fanfare and the initiative received a great deal of national attention and support. Superville and others contacted by PW generally credited Nutter’s sincerity in pursuing PREP, but they say that the program has long suffered from dysfunction.
MORE’s first director, Ronald L. Cuie, himself an ex-offender, was demoted in August after months of spectacular mismanagement that included doubling his staff size and botching contracts with non-profits. But he kept his $87,500-a-year salary for months, leading critics to charge that Cuie’s management capabilities were not sufficiently investigated prior to his hiring.
Harper took over as interim director and, eight months later, remains in that position. Gillison says a permanent director should be hired “soon,” but he says that the city’s hiring freeze makes that difficult.
Advocates hope the program will be turned around. For its part, the city says that the problems just reflect growing pains that can be worked out over the program’s second year. A new reentry task force is scheduled to hold its first meeting later this month and Gillison says that another meeting with employers is currently being planned.
But implementation remains a problem. The Inquirer reports that the city also missed a January 31 deadline to issue a report on the program and has failed to implement a provision requiring that all recipients of city contracts or abatements of over $1 million identify ways to hire ex-offenders.
And City Hall, which was supposed to set an example for other employers, has failed to meet its own obligations under the law to ensure that public sector jobs are accessible to former offenders.
The law stipulates that “Within forty-five days after this Section becomes law, the Personnel Director shall transmit to the Mayor, the President of City Council, and to the Civil Service Commission recommended guidelines for the City’s hiring of ex-offenders, and recommendations for increasing public, private and non-profit sector employment of ex-offenders, including identifying barriers to such employment and ways to remove such barriers.” Gillison says they are reviewing draft guidelines, but they have yet to be filed.
Every year roughly 40,000 ex-prisoners are released back into the Philadelphia area from prison and jail. Stigmatized by the “ex-con” label and its accompanying perceptions, many of these men and women find it difficult to find jobs and, without other resources, fall back on what they know: old friends and habits from their criminal pasts. Recognizing the need to provide alternatives, the city is now implementing innovative ways to help them obtain and keep jobs.