The 29 days since Jason Horn left jail have been a blur of bus rides, AA meetings and rejections. Today, with a cold snap tugging the temperature into the single digits, he's taking the No. 3 bus to continue his job search in Old Colorado City. Somehow, he manages to sound upbeat.
"You can't give up," he says. "You can't let your past history slow you down, start drinking and drugging again."
Experience tells him that kind of history is tough to shake. But this time is going to be different. It has to be.
Though the sun is doing little to stave off a bone-numbing chill, it's still early afternoon when Horn reaches his stop on West Colorado Avenue. As he walks on a snow-packed stretch of sidewalk toward a nearby Starbucks, the 33-year-old's limp becomes visible. He broke his foot playing handball while in jail, and now doctors say he'll need surgery to fix a bone that's healed into a painful knob protruding under his shoelaces.
"I don't have the money," Horn says simply.
The coffee shop provides a welcome break from the cold, but Horn immediately walks to the counter to ask about openings. If not quite confident, he projects a calm fatalism about his job search, as if certain that he'll get whatever is his due.
That turns out to be very little at Starbucks. The woman behind the counter says he'll have to apply online — a kiss of death, since it'll give him no chance to explain his criminal history.
Horn smiles as he leaves, and continues smiling as he walks between other businesses the rest of the afternoon. He fills out applications at a temp agency and a couple restaurants, while hearing variations on the Starbucks theme — come back later or apply online — if not outright refusal, at a dozen other places.
He never talks about his felony, because no one asks. So today, Horn clings to the hope of a call-back from a steakhouse where he interviewed the day before. And he basically looks like just one more desperate person searching for work in a dismal job market.
Plagued by the past
The reality for Horn and others with felony records is much darker. Steve Handen, a Colorado Springs homeless advocate, says the process of filling out applications often ends the hiring process long before the time comes to make a decision.
"It's name, address, telephone number, and, 'Have you ever been convicted of a felony?'" he says. "The felonious ones fall to the bottom of the barrel pretty quick."
Handen says he's seen people submit 100 or more applications before throwing in the towel. Then they take joblessness for granted and go back to drinking or whatever else got them into trouble in the first place.
Christie Donner, executive director of the Denver-based Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, lays out the conundrum in explicit terms: "If they can't survive legally, they will figure out a way to survive."
Gov. Bill Ritter set goals soon after he took office three years ago to reduce recidivism, the rate at which people like Horn go back to prison, while also curbing growth in the state's prison population. On the latter front he's made some progress: The state has only added 346 inmates to its tally since the end of 2006, bringing the total to 22,696. (Ritter announced with some fanfare a plan to save the state nearly $19 million in the 2009-10 budget year by speeding the release of some inmates, but his Accelerated Transition Program was scaled back sharply amid criticism that dangerous people would be put back on the streets.)
It's too early to examine recidivism data since the governor took office, but the state's tightening budget has already squeezed out some of the programs that were meant to help former inmates stick to the straight and narrow. Starting last year, the state budgeted $1.8 million for "wraparound" services to help parolees get jobs, housing and other necessities, along with $3 million to get inmates educational and vocational training in prison. Yet neither program ever was funded, and both are slated for permanent elimination from the Department of Corrections budget this year.
Donner says three of the 200-plus inmates released early under Ritter's Accelerated Transition Program have already come to her organization looking for help, indicating possible gaps in services for that program as well.
Donner, who serves on the state's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and helps lead one of its sub-groups analyzing post-prison supervision, says funding woes are only part of a bigger problem: The state's parole system still leans toward penalizing offenders who slip up, instead of motivating them to succeed.
"We are probably years behind where other states are," she says.
Plans to start training parole and probation officers in motivational interviewing techniques are on track for later this year. But their clients will face the harshest economy in decades.
Back in February 2007, the Indy told the story of Ernie Medina, who, after serving three prison terms on drug-related charges, started his own construction company with the goal of employing other former inmates. Today, the company is gone, and Medina's struggling to find hourly work as a carpenter. Paroled five years ago, Medina sounds a note of despair talking about what it would be like to get out now: "They are almost doomed to fail because of a lack of work."
He talks longingly about the idea that people should get a chance to succeed when they leave prison, then dismisses it."That's just fucked," he says, apologizing for the profanity but adding that no other word fits. "It's just too hard to find a job."