Chicago's boom gives ex-cons chance of work

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The Independent US

"They jumped me, four of them. One guy stabbed me and then tried again. I shot out with my eyes closed. I killed him." For George Lawson this was when things went from bad to a whole lot worse.

"They jumped me, four of them. One guy stabbed me and then tried again. I shot out with my eyes closed. I killed him." For George Lawson this was when things went from bad to a whole lot worse.

As a 23-year-old he had, like many in the North Lawndale suburb of Chicago, been involved in drugs. But now he was a killer. He pleaded self-defence, but the prosecutor preferred to call it first-degree murder. He didn't get the benefit of the doubt.

Twenty-five years on, having served his time, Mr Lawson is back in North Lawndale, living in a hostel, looking for work, but he knows that things are always going to be that bit harder for a convicted murderer. "It's a problem - you have to get people to trust you. They think that if they rub you up the wrong way, you're going to go berserk." But, perhaps surprisingly, Mr Lawson has a good chance of finding a job.

In the basement of a church, he joins representatives from several charitable and volunteer agencies who have come together to help ex-convicts get back into the labour market. At North Lawndale Employment Network, former law-breakers can get help in all areas of finding work, including training, education, housing, clothing and curing substance abuse.

For those ex-offenders willing to invest time and effort, the chances of getting back into mainstream life have not been as good for a long time. With unemployment standing at four per cent, companies are looking beyond their normal pools of workers. In Illinois, which includes Chicago, around 2,000 prisoners are released every month.

Steve Epting, employment director of the Safer Foundation, which for 28 years has been trying to place ex-offenders in work and is now part of NLEN, says that organisation is in danger of being swamped: "I'm worried we'll just get too many people coming through the doors." He is probably right: in North Lawndale, many people need help. Just a couple of miles from Chicago's thriving downtown area, it has been racked by deprivation since the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968.

North Lawndale, like many black neighbourhoods across the country, went up in flames. There are still scores of vacant sites where buildings were burned down. Until very recently the population of almost 50,000 did not have a grocery store or bank.

More than two-thirds of the male population between the ages of 18 and 45 are ex-offenders, and drug-taking is a major problem. That means those signing up with NLEN must agree to unannounced tests even while they are receiving help and advice.

If the ex-offender does finally secure a job, it is not just the individual who benefits. In addition to the economic advantage of having people in work, there is also an impact on crime. The recidivism rate among working ex-offenders is almost half that of those who are dependent on welfare.

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