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.' "
Hobbs has seen similar turnarounds in his own family. His own sons struggled for years with drug addiction before getting treatment that got them back on track.
Hobbs said his son Larry, an official at the plant, is effective at holding employees accountable in their recovery.
"It's good to have someone who's been in addiction — they can't pull the wool over his eyes," Carey Hobbs said. "He knows immediately if they're lying."
Ramos, the former meth dealer, said having a job and a supportive church family made all the difference for him.
Ramos said he grew up in an unstable home in Waco, and he was in seventh grade when got on the wrong side of the law. Through his teenage years he was in and out of juvenile hall for carrying weapons and stealing cars. He dropped out of school his freshman year, and he fell into harder drugs, overdosing once on cocaine.
He spent two months in the county jail after he got in a wreck in 2002 and was found guilty of drunk driving and failing to render aid. Soon, he was selling cocaine and meth, and he got arrested on a drug possession charge in 2006. He got probation for that charge but violated it by failing to report to his officer.
His turning point came one day when he was doing an odd job, installing insulation.
"I came home and went to the restroom and started smoking meth," he said. "But then I looked in the mirror and said, 'What am I doing?' I flushed what I had and went to my mom's house. I wrote a letter to God, saying, 'I need your help. I don't want to do this anymore.' "
The next day, his probation officer caught up with him, and a drug test found that he still had drugs in his system.
"I heard a voice inside me saying, 'Hey, you asked for help. Here you are,' " Ramos recalled.
He accepted a deal to go to an intensive substance abuse program in Lubbock rather than to jail.
While there, he got help from a ministry headed by an ex-heroin addict.
"For the first time, I began to see people really do care," he said.
When he returned to Waco, he remembered an invitation from a stranger to attend Antioch Community Church. He went on Sunday morning and ended up eating lunch with a family afterward.
Soon, he was regularly attending a church "life group," alongside people who didn't seem to care that he was a drug addict and ex-offender, he said.
"That began to help me transform the way I thought about myself," he said.
Finding work, meanwhile, wasn't easy.
He said he applied at a temp agency and found that he was automatically disqualified from many of the jobs. He ended up taking a job at the Cargill turkey plant.
"I felt limited from the start, so I stepped into the job I was given and said, 'Whatever this job pays, I'm going to give it 100 percent,' " he said.
Ramos later went to work for a landscaping firm and now is self-employed as a landscaper.
Through support he got at Antioch, he reconciled with his wife, who also was in recovery from drugs and was continuing her education at MCC. The two now live together with their five children, and they lead a life group at Antioch.
Ramos also teaches Monday nights at Mercy House, Antioch's residential recovery program for men.
Stroman said Ramos' story underscores the importance of getting faith communities involved in reintegrating ex-offenders.
"It's a huge source of volunteers and a source of passion of people who want to do this, and who are willing to commit people and time," Stroman said.
Ramos compared the reintegration effort to the biblical story of Nehemiah, who organized his countrymen to rebuild the ruined walls of Jerusalem. He thought of that story a couple of weeks ago as he built a retaining wall for a playground.
"While I was working, I thought God was reminding me of the story of Nehemiah gathering all these people who were already there to use their skills to rebuild that wall," he said. "There's lots of people here who have skills, and a lot of agencies. It's just bringing people together to make this happen."
Information from: Waco Tribune-Herald, http://www.wacotrib.com