Waco group helps offenders re-enter society
WACO, Texas (AP) — A decade ago, Waco police Chief Brent Stroman would have written off someone like Jason Ramos as beyond reform.
Ramos, a drug dealer and habitual criminal, thought the same about himself.
Ramos, now 34, got hooked on drugs in middle school and spent 17 years mired in drugs and crime, becoming a methamphetamine dealer in his late 20s.
"For four years, I went to bed hitting a glass pipe and got up in the morning hitting a glass pipe," he said. "My life was consumed with addiction and trying to make money. I knew there was another kind of life out there, but I didn't think it was possible for me."
He found his escape through a drug treatment program and a supportive church, and now he's a family man with a steady job.
He also is shoulder to shoulder with Stroman and other community leaders in an effort to help other ex-offenders write a new chapter in their lives.
They are both board members of the McLennan County Reintegration Roundtable, which is urging employers, churches and social services agencies to unite to help ex-offenders re-enter society.
The group will host a public meeting Thursday afternoon to start a dialogue about how to do that. The group also includes Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr., county sheriff and district attorney officials, higher education officials, employers and faith and social services leaders. The effort began eight months ago with help from the Cooper Foundation.
Stroman said McLennan County has 3,400 residents on probation, 1,460 on parole, and 2,600 serving time behind bars. He said it's in the community's interest to provide those ex-offenders opportunities for employment, education, substance abuse treatment and social services.
"The reality is that that population is coming back into the community," he said. "If something is not in place to help them, they are going to reoffend, and they're going to keep going right back into the system. There's a cost to the individual, but also to the community."
Stroman said he didn't always think that way. He used to tell criminal justice students he taught at McLennan Community College that in his experience, criminals never really change. But a student who had served prison time herself challenged him on that point and changed his thinking. He said he has come to see rehabilitation as crucial to reducing the crime rate.
He said probation and parole programs statewide are retooling to improve follow-up with ex-offenders, but their staffing levels still fall short of what is needed. He said reintegrating ex-offenders needs to be a community effort.
"I truly believe the services already exist in the community," he said. "It's just a matter of pulling everybody together. It's a community crime prevention effort, and on a personal basis, it's providing these folks with an opportunity to be successful."
Duncan said a major role of the new Reintegration Roundtable is to help change attitudes toward ex-offenders so they can get jobs and support.
"There's going to have to be a change in employers' perceptions about what are the risks and rewards," of hiring people with criminal records, Duncan said. "We're asking, 'What can we do to lessen their fear of hiring ex-offenders?' "
Nationwide studies of ex-offenders have shown a strong correlation between unemployment and recidivism — that is, committing further crimes.
No local data was available on unemployment or recidivism rates among ex-offenders. Statewide, the recidivism rate was 24 percent for 2007 state prison releases, measured during a three-year period. That was down from 27 percent for 2005 releases, according to the Council of State Governments.
Carey Hobbs, a board member of the Reintegration Roundtable, said his personal experience shows the benefits of hiring people with a criminal past.
Hobbs said about a third of the 200 employees at his factory, Hobbs Bonded Fibers, are ex-felons or recovering addicts.
"It's a good pool of labor," he said. "What you need is someone who's motivated to stay . . . We like to do it because it helps people. It's really encouraging to hear people say, 'I'm graduating from (McLennan Community College), and I couldn't have done it without you.' "
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