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KAI RYSSDAL: More than half a million people are going to get out of jail this year. A larger than usual percentage of them will be drug offenders, thanks in part to a ruling by the Supreme Court last year over sentences for crack cocaine. No matter what they were in for, though, job prospects for ex-cons are pretty dim. Since September 11th, companies have been running security checks on their hires. Even small businesses can use the Internet to dig up a candidate's past.
From KCUR in Kansas City, Sylvia Maria Gross reports on a group of business owners willing to give an ex-offender a second chance.
STEVE WATSON: Alright, alright, go ahead and have a seat, and I'll be doing the cut.
SYLVIA MARIA GROSS: Steve Watson's been cutting hair since 1996. That's as long as he's had a criminal record. He didn't go to jail, but after his misdemeanor, barbering was one of the only jobs he could get.
WATSON: In the first barber shop I worked at we would get a lot of customers that would come in. They were fresh out of jail, so after going through that and seeing, working in the business that: "Hey, there's a need for people that are trying to do something with themselves, but there's not enough outlets."
So, when Watson set up his own shop, he decided not to shy away from hiring people with criminal records. He knew first-hand how uncertain life could be for former offenders.
WATSON: Once you get a job and been working for a week, a month, and then they come back with: "Well, we just did our background check and we've got to let you go." What are you left to do?
TORIN MARCUS RILEY: I put in like 300 applications and I really didn't even get a call back.
That's Torin Marcus Riley. He served five years in prison for robbery. When he came out, he asked Watson to bring him on as an apprentice. Now Riley's working to earn his official license.
RILEY: He took what he learned, passed it on to me, you know, because he went through it first. He's the man.
There are incentives for hiring ex-offenders. Companies can get tax credits, and a federal bonding program insures them for liability. Nicole Lindahl works at the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College. She says many small business owners aren't as motivated by subsidies as they are by their own conscience.
NICOLE LINDAHL: They feel incredibly fortunate and they want to share that fortune with others who have been in similar situations to themselves.
PATRICK DANLEY: What I will say though, is if all you have is T-shirts and jeans and sneakers, cool, but . . .
Near downtown, a group of ex-offenders looking for jobs meet in a non-profit agency.
DANLEY: You know what I'm saying? Just come crispy at least. Come presentable, man.
It's run by Patrick Danley, a former drug dealer. He has 32 people on his staff, all volunteers, all have criminal records, and so do many of the employers he works with. Danley says business owners who are ex-offenders tend to be extremely vigilant about their employees.
PATRICK DANLEY: Because they've been where they've been at and they want to make sure that this person is not on drugs.
Ironically, Danley says a former drug dealer can make a standout employee.
DANLEY: He has extensive cash-handling experience. He's able to work traditional and non-traditional hours. He has excellent problem-solving skills, conflict-resolution skills.
WATSON: And I'm just doing a light taper on the sides and the back and a shape-up.
Steve Watson, the barber shop owner, says ex-offenders often need careful handling, but not for the reasons you might expect.
WATSON: You're going to have to be able to help them out as far as getting adjusted to society, you know. A lot of people, when they get out, they mean well and they want to do better so they're going to be hard on themselves.
Watson says many people in his community worry about how former convicts will fit in when they get out of prison, but he says, given the right opportunity, they could become valuable employees, and they're much less likely to get in trouble again.
In Kansas City, I'm Sylvia Maria Gross for Marketplace.