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The population of U.S. prisons exploded for decades. Now it's actually going down. And millions of former prisoners are back in society, struggling to find work. Last week the White House announced $59 million in new grants for job training. From WABE in Atlanta, Susanna Capelouto reports on efforts to turn former felons into workers.
SUSANNA CAPELOUTO, BYLINE: Jay Neal is in charge of Georgia's new office of re-entry. Its purpose is clear. He can read it off the website.
JAY NEAL: Helping Georgia's returning citizens find training. Assisting Georgia's returning citizens find jobs.
CAPELOUTO: Returning citizens is America's new term for ex-prisoners, ex-cons, former inmates. Six-hundred thousand such citizens return in the U.S. each year - 20,000 of them in Georgia, which has the country's fifth-largest prison system.
NEAL: We think it's important that we change the conversation. We're committed to using that dialogue throughout.
CAPELOUTO: Georgia spent 17 million and got $6 million last year in federal grants to help reduce the rate of recidivism. The state has three years to show results. There's now skills training in prison, more caseworkers in six counties and more help once a prisoner is released. It's a complex undertaking, and Neal says government can't do it all.
NEAL: We've got to be able to provide meaningful employment for them. That doesn't happen without businesses that are willing to give them jobs.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now repeat after me. Change my mind.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Change my mind.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Change my heart.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Change my heart.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Change my actions.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Change my actions.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The rest is up to me.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: The rest is up to me.
CAPELOUTO: About 20 men, many with prison records and a willingness to work, are gearing up for a character class at Georgia Works. It's a nonprofit in downtown Atlanta where they live for at least six months to become employable. Harold Ball has been here since December. He came after spending two years locked up for possession of cocaine. Now he has a part-time job at a recycling plant and is happy about it.
HAROLD BALL: It works. I needed it. I need the structure. I need the job. Where I'm at now, they just told me. I said, look, I want a permanent job. He said, give me two months, I got you.
CHRIS WATKINS: I really don't judge on the crime.
CAPELOUTO: Chris Watkins is a hiring manager for a landscaping company. He's made it a mission to treat ex-prisoners the same as anyone else during job interviews, except that he asks about their record.
WATKINS: I want to see a level of accountability - personal accountability because I know that if they're accountable for their actions in the past that I can count on that when they come to the workforce - honesty and people with the ability to look me in the eye.
CAPELOUTO: He says those he hires are very loyal, but he is not willing to name his company because of a stigma that still persists against ex-felons, he says. There are many companies like his that quietly hire ex-prisoners, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And there are employers like Johns Hopkins University and Butterball Farms that are very public about hiring people with a criminal record.
THOMAS PEREZ: And then there are other employers who are thinking about it.
CAPELOUTO: That's U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. He says U.S. businesses are moving in the right direction, but there are barriers.
PEREZ: I've spoken with employers who have said, well, I'm willing to take a risk, but this person had a conviction for theft. What happens if something doesn't work out? Well, guess what? We have a tool in our toolbox for that. It's called a surety bond.
CAPELOUTO: That's free insurance on an ex-inmate they hire, and companies can also get a $2,400 federal tax credit. In Georgia, Jay Neal thinks it won't be hard to convince more businesses to take some risk because here, 1 in 13 adults is under some kind of state supervision.
NEAL: Just about everybody knows somebody who's been in the prison system and knows enough about them to know that they're not a real threat, that they need help more than they need to be locked away.
CAPELOUTO: And that they are no longer ex-offenders but returning citizens. For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.
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