In 2015, Jonathan, 20, started studying criminal justice at Borough of Manhattan Community College. He dreamed of one day becoming a lawyer. But a year later, in August 2016, that dream was in jeopardy when he said he was arrested after police caught him with eight bags of heroin and he was put on probation for criminal possession of a weapon.
Now, he is hoping for a second chance. On Thursday, Jonathan, who did not want his last name used, attended a job fair for young offenders at Bronx Borough Hall. He was willing to look at any job he could get. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” he said.
His story is a common one. Young offenders like Jonathan are at risk of ending up back in criminal justice system, according to a panel of experts on recidivism who spoke just before the job fair kicked off.
“The initiative is designed to help offenders overcome the stigma they carry,” said Fabrice Armand, the director of strategic partnership and community outreach at the city’s Department of Correction. He described it as part of an interdisciplinary approach in which different state and city agencies work together, providing both a theoretical framework as well as practical help in the form of matchmaking between “background friendly” employers and employees.
The State Department of Labor with the help of six agencies, such as the city’s Department of Correction, the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Department of Civil Service provide resource booklets on how ex-offenders can enter the workforce successfully.
The initiative started Oct. 19 in Queens with a job fair for adult offenders. The event in the Bronx focused on youth offenders and the last of the series, another event for adults, will take place at the end of January in Brooklyn when figures will be available to assess the effectiveness of the initiative by looking at how many job seekers were matched with jobs. “We had 77 job seekers in total at the Bronx, which was an improvement from the first event in Queens,” Armand said.
At Thursday’s event, employers offered jobs in construction and technology. The Fortune Society, a nonprofit that works with ex-offenders, and the city’s Department of Small Business Services, matched job seekers with employers. Other city agencies, such as Workforce One, provide training, organizers said.
Organizers believe employers need to understand the challenges faced by young offenders like Jonathan, who grew up in the Bronx. His parents separated when he was young, so he lived with his mother. He is estranged from his father. Jonathan’s mother used to work as a paralegal but had to quit when she became ill, he said. Jonathan, too, quit college when his grandmother and one of his best friends died last year. It all became too much for him, he said.
During his childhood and teens, Jonathan mostly stayed out of trouble. He said he was arrested for minor gambling charges, jaywalking and loitering but he completed 10 days of court-assigned community service for these small offenses in August 2016 and eventually was cleared. A week later, Jonathan said he got in trouble again for heroin and weapons possession.
He has come a long way since then, though he is still on probation. “This was the first time I ever attended a job fair of any sort,“ he said. “It seemed pretty helpful. One company had jobs in construction. They assured me my record would not interfere so I feel pretty confident that I will get a job. Next week, I will go to their office here in Bronx with my birth certificate. I wouldn’t mind doing construction.”