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Former gang members: A life sentence of joblessness

It's everyone's business to give former gang members a chance to prove themselves through work.

May 11, 2011|By Gregory J. Boyle

Lorenzo had a hard time concealing his nervousness. Standing in front of a large room packed with Boeing employees in late March, the tall, lanky African American gang member described the arc of his life. At 22, he had spent nearly a third of his life incarcerated.

Peering out of his round, black-rimmed glasses, he talked about his seven months at Homeboy Industries (the largest gang reentry program in the country), and about how he had moved quickly from the janitorial team to become an assistant in the accounting department. "I used to steal money," he said. "Now I'm counting it."

I had the honor of witnessing Lorenzo's seven-month journey from convict to accounting assistant, watching as he became the young man God had in mind when he made him. But despite his remarkable turnaround and the many things he had to offer an employer, Lorenzo's prospects for finding a job outside our program were dim.

Opportunities for second chances are few for people like Lorenzo. Homeboy Industries is about the only game in town. Most employers just aren't willing to look beyond the dumbest or worst thing someone has done.

Another "homie" recently came to me for help after, for the third time, he was let go from a job because his employer had discovered he'd done five years in prison. He told me the boss said, "You're one of our best workers, but we have to let you go." Then, with a desperate sadness, the young man added: "Damn, G. No one told me I'd be getting a life sentence of no work."

The business of second chances is everybody's business. We lose our right to be surprised that California has the highest recidivism rate in the country if we refuse to hire folks who have taken responsibility for their crimes and have done their time.

Even in this alarming economic climate, where the pool of prospective employees is larger than ever, we need to find the moral imperative as a society to secure places in our workforce for those who just need a chance to prove themselves. This can't be the concern only of a large gang rehab center; it must also be part of our collective response to keep our streets safe and our communities healthy.

As a society, we come up lacking in many of the marks of compassion and wisdom by which we measure ourselves as civilized.

We are among the handful of countries that has difficulty distinguishing juveniles from adults where crime is concerned. We are convinced that if a child commits an adult crime, that kid is magically transformed into an adult. Consequently, we try juveniles as adults. We still execute people. And we belong to a small, exclusive club of countries that brands felons forever and denies them voting rights, access to employment and, sometimes, even housing.

Delegations from all over the world visit Homeboy Industries and scratch their heads as we tell them of our difficulty in placing our people in jobs after their time with us. Americans' seeming refusal to believe in a person's ability to redeem himself strikes these folks as foreign indeed.

Waiting for a piece of legislation or an elected official's change of heart would seem unwarranted. Instead, faith communities and networks of employers need to create a groundswell that will afford opportunity to a population long shut out and denied a chance at redemption. And because gang involvement has always been about a lethal absence of hope, making room in the workplace for those who have made mistakes could also make a big difference in our public safety. Such a movement could not be more timely, because jails and prisons in the state will soon begin to release large numbers of inmates to reduce prison crowding and save money.

The Boeing employees who witnessed Lorenzo's testimony knew instantly that they were in the presence of a young man who was a whole lot more than his rap sheet. But two weeks after his talk, Lorenzo was gunned down in a club — the 175th young person I've had to bury in my 25 years working with gang members. Tragically, his death came at the point in his life when Lorenzo had finally begun to imagine his future and not his funeral, though he knew that society's labels would limit him and weigh heavily.

The mark of our society as civilized will come when we embrace confidence in the power of redemption.

Gregory J. Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is executive director and founder of Homeboy Industries. He is the author of "Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion."

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