ANNAPOLIS – Johnny Woodhouse spent five years in a federal institution for cocaine possession, but he will be paying for it for the rest of his life.
When the Baltimore resident was released in 1997, he completed dozens of job applications and went on several interviews, but no one would hire him. He finally was forced to go into business for himself.
The Maryland Senate approved a bill last week to help people like Woodhouse who say they are unable to obtain employment because of their criminal background. The bill creates a two-year pilot program to provide incentives for the long-term employment of up to 200 qualified ex-felons.
The bill’s fate in the House, where it is pending before the Ways and Means Committee, is uncertain.
“I got tired of going and filling out applications,” said Woodhouse. “I had transportation. I could work any shift. Nobody would give me that opportunity.”
Under the bill, a business that hires an ex-offender will receive a one- year $5,000 federal fidelity bond for the ex-felon’s first year of employment – a sort of insurance policy against misbehavior by the employee. It will also receive a state tax credit of $1,800 for the first year of employment and $1,200 the second year if the ex-felon remains employed. The Governor’s Workforce Investment Board and the Department of Public Safety Correctional Services would oversee the program.
If the ex-felon voluntarily leaves the job before a year is up, the business would still get the tax credit.
“They need to start looking at this and stop making people pay two or three times for the same crime,” said Leon Purnell, executive director of the Men’s Center in Baltimore. “These people have served their crime, try to walk the straight and narrow and they’re not given a fair chance.”
While the bill received an unfavorable report in the Ways and Means Committee, an amended version passed the full Senate 42-3. The amended bill made the program into a two-year pilot program to take effect July 1 and end Dec. 31, 2003.
“We hope (the House) doesn’t see this as the same bill that was killed,” said bill sponsor Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore. “We have a real problem with ex-offenders becoming employed particularly in urban areas. They come out, want to do the right thing, and not go back to those institutions.”
Opponents to the bill charge that it gives special treatment to businesses.
“I like tax credits,” said Sen. Alex Mooney, R-Frederick, who voted against it. “We should apply them fairly. I like to see tax cuts across the board where every citizen can have a tax cut.”
McFadden said 85 percent of ex-offenders are going to come out of jail and need work. When felons admit their conviction on their job application form, he said, the employer usually doesn’t call them. When they lie, the background check exposes their record.
“Most communities don’t really understand that people who commit crimes don’t stay locked up forever,” said Joseph Jones Jr., executive director of the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development. “They’re going to come back into the community. If they really understood the issues, they would put more into rehabilitation and re-entry.”
Woodhouse, who owns a seafood restaurant, gives ex-offenders a second chance. He has several working for him.
“I don’t count nobody out,” said Woodhouse. “It doesn’t matter (what they were in jail for). You can talk to a person and find out what kind of person they are. They wouldn’t come looking for work if they didn’t need it, if they weren’t trying to get back on their feet.”
Delegate Clarence Davis, D-Baltimore, said getting ex-offenders back to work is something the Legislative Black Caucus has always advocated. He hopes the House feels the same way.
“We’re going to work with it and we’re going to get it passed,” said Davis. “I think we have a good chance.”