Five years after his release from prison, James Butler, 49, of Fayetteville, is looking for a job.
Butler spent eight months behind bars for assault. Previously, he worked as a machine operator after getting out of jail, but he got in trouble again, when he was charged with DWI. He is now on probation. Thanks to a new program in Cumberland County, Butler’s prospect of finding another job is better than you might think.
On May 13, he attended a Cumberland County community resource meeting for ex-offenders, wearing a white shirt and tie and polished shoes. Butler wanted to learn more about the program for individuals who have been convicted of felonies.
“Most ex-felons say that their greatest desire upon release is to be given a fair chance to succeed in America,” Dr. Tracey Andrus writes in Corrections.com. “When businesses close their doors to ex-felons, and private and public entities refuse to allow them a chance to work, what other recourse do they have?”
He is Director of Criminal Justice at a private historically black college in East Texas. He looked closely at this topic because African Americans make up approximately 47 percent of the inmate population in the United States.
The local meeting, sponsored by Project Fresh Start, focused on helping individuals who have been convicted of felonies to find employment and affordable housing. Ex-offenders who are released from prison and acquire gainful employment and have the support of their loved ones are much more likely to stay out of prison longer and in many cases never return, research shows.
County Commissioner Charles Evans, himself a convicted felon, organized Project Fresh Start. He was convicted of drug possession and embezzlement and was on probation for eight months until he paid $3,000 in restitution. Evans has been elected to public office four times since then.
“Sometimes we make mistakes, but those mistakes shouldn’t follow us the rest of our lives,” said Evans.
In 2011, he persuaded his fellow county commissioners to “ban the box” on job applications. That means persons seeking work with the county can apply without revealing if they have a criminal record. They even go through their initial interview without being asked if they’ve been convicted of a felony, according to county Human Resources Consultant Laura Blackley. Once a background check has been completed, applicants are asked about the crimes they were convicted of and how long it had been since they were released. They’re asked what they’ve done with their lives since then, according to Blackley. If everything checks out, the applicants’ backgrounds are matched with the job they’re seeking. The City of Fayetteville has also banned the box.
A couple of dozen former felons attended the meeting and were told “Cumberland County believes in you,” by County Commission Chairman Marshall Faircloth.
Other local and state government agencies participated in the meeting, encouraging offenders to apply. They included the county re-entry program, the North Carolina Works Career Center, Cumberland County Public Library, the Department of Social Services, Fayetteville Metropolitan Housing Authority and Fayetteville Area System of Transit.