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‘An employed community is a safe community’: Lee County District Attorney’s Office to help give ex-cons a second chance through job fair

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Alex Hosey

Dozens of employers and organizations throughout Lee County will gather at Southern Union State Community College’s Southern Room Friday from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. to offer jobs and opportunities to those with criminal records as a part of the Second Chance Job and Resource Fair put on by the Lee County District Attorney’s Office.

Lee County District Attorney Jessica Ventiere said her office got the idea to hold the fair after other counties in the state held similar events and were met with success, and she decided it was something the residents of Lee County would benefit from.

The event, which is free to attend, will feature background-check-friendly employers willing to hire prospective employees with past criminal histories and other resources to help would-be workers get on the right path.

“The fact that someone has a felony on their criminal record is not going to automatically exclude them from being able to apply for these kinds of jobs,” Ventiere said. “They’ll go through the hiring process just like anybody else would.”

In addition to employers, local organizations will be present to help residents get ready to work through mock interviews, job training, GED and educational preparation, vocational training and more.

Local lawyers and Lee County Circuit Clerk Mary Roberson will be present at the Second Chance Job Fair to provide information about the state’s expungement laws concerning criminal records, which Ventiere said was updated recently and could allow those with criminal records to apply for jobs with a clean slate.

On top of that, Lee County circuit and district judges as well as Opelika municipal court judges have expressed support of the fair by agreeing to waive up to $250 in legal fees other than restitution payments for those who attend the fair and register at the event, Ventiere said.

“If people have jobs, they’re less likely to commit crimes. If people who are in the system can get out of the system and get good jobs, they’re far less likely to re-offend,” Ventiere said. “An employed community is a safe community. A huge part of my job is providing public safety, so any way we can do something to make our community safer is something we want to be a part of.”

A living example of the values of employment after prison is Chris Cloud, 50, who was arrested and imprisoned at the age of 27 for drug possession, intent to distribute and conspiracy.

Cloud said his life before prison, when he was using and selling drugs was empty, and the only thing that stood after he became imprisoned was his family and God.

“My mindset was, ‘Wow, my best thinking landed me in prison, I need to try something different,’” Cloud said.

During his almost 15 years in prison, Cloud said he applied to every program and class he could, and when he was released in May 2013 he became the pastor of Abel Ministries. The ministry works alongside Abel Electric, a company founded by another former convict, Joshua Vandusseldorp, and teaches and employs about 70 tradesmen, many of them ex-cons.

“We give them and teach them a trade, and right now we’ve got the electrical side, both commercial and residential, and we just started a construction and painting company,” Cloud said. “I’d say probably 90 percent of the people here have been arrested before and have records, including the owner. … It just shows you the power of giving these guys a chance.”

Abel is just one of many employers who will be present at the Second Chance Job and Resource Fair, along with Bodine’s Landscaping Services, Publix, Rabren General Contractors, Curb Technologies, Elwood Staffing and more, with some employers offering salaries of about $45,000 per year and others offering hourly wages of $10-$20 an hour with benefits, Ventiere said.

“We’ve got jobs ranging everywhere from food services to construction to landscaping, the hospitality industry, automotive and mechanical work,” Ventiere said.

Along with information on educational and vocational training, Southern Union will also provide computers and internet access at the event to help would-be workers apply to jobs online, and Southern Union President Tom Shackett said the college was willing to help out with the cause by providing educational resources and computers in order to help the local community.

“I think it’s important for all of us, and if you think of it in terms of cost alone—how much it costs to house someone in the prison system or in jail—it’s very expensive,” Shackett said. “If you take that person and you show them a way to connect the dots to a better life, all of a sudden you’ll not only not have that expense, but they’ll be generating income and paying taxes. I also feel that if someone has a purpose and a career path, it brings up a lot of other secondary opportunities for them. They’ll feel better about themselves, they’ll have money in their pockets.”

Ventiere said the job fair was not limited to just those with criminal records, and that anyone looking for a job was welcome to come by and meet with employers and organizations that will be present at Southern Union Friday.

Ventiere said any other organizations that wish to be a part of the fair as an employer or resource can get involved by emailing her office at info@leecountyda.org.

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