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Posted at 8:30 PM ET, 11/12/2010

Help wanted: One second-chance job

By Jim Arkedis, Washington

Tim Cofield needed his public defender again way too soon.  After his release from jail in March, I wrote on this page that Tim would soon be back in front of a judge if he did not get consistent access to substance-abuse counseling, mental health care and stable housing. Tim, who turned 55 on Wednesday, is a bipolar-schizophrenic who has rotated in and out of jail, usually for narcotics and parole violations, for most of his adult life.

Eight months later, Tim still isn’t receiving the care he needs. The result has hardly been surprising. His latest incarceration was from mid-October, when he submitted “dirty urines” at substance tests, until last week. It was the cognac Courvoisier, he told me.

I’ve mentored Tim once a week since February 2009 through the Welcome Home Reentry Program, a wonderful charity that matches mentors with recently released inmates. Despite the many and often self-inflicted challenges Tim faces, I refuse to believe he is doomed to society’s dumpster.

It might be unrealistic to think that counseling, mental health services or the long public housing list will be improved overnight, but they don’t have to be. The past eight months convince me that Tim needs to catch one simple break to have a chance at turning his life around immediately: a job.

When Tim and I met, he had a temporary gig as a maintenance worker with the D.C. government. It wasn’t glamorous, but even at $9 an hour and with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call, he knew how vital it was, and he worked hard. After his six-month contract ended, he became stressed and depressed, and he got into trouble.

Without steady employment, he remains mired in a negatively reinforcing cycle: jail, insufficient treatment, unemployment, parole violation, jail. Rinse and repeat, except that the parole violations become more serious or more frequent.

With his current slate of treatments, he won’t break out of the cycle. Tim has attended a substance counseling program several times a week. But as the Courvoisier attests, it has been only marginally effective. He receives infrequent psychiatric care, through sessions that seem focused on prescribing sleep medications. And I worry constantly about where he spends the night. Right now he has a girlfriend who lets him crash with her. His other options are the homeless shelter at Second and D streets NW or sleeping on couches of friends, not all of whom are people with Tim’s best interests in mind.

Tim survives on $606 a month in Social Security and disability payments from the District. The money is a blessing and a curse: It keeps him afloat but isn’t enough to build a budget around. Instead of putting money away for a security deposit on an apartment, he buys what he needs, then picks up things like speakers and fancy shoes with whatever is left over.

That’s why a job would mean much more than a few extra dollars in his pocket. A job would give him a stake in his own life. It would build a sense of accomplishment, occupy time otherwise spent with questionable associates and create a reason to save money for long-term goals. Moreover, as Michelle Singletary wrote in The Post just this month, a job would reduce Tim’s and others’ recidivism and crime throughout the community.

Instead, doors slam all around him. Tim has filled out application after application. I’ve helped him look online for openings, and he has met consistently with an employment counselor at Green Door, an organization that provides services to the mentally ill. Tim gets an interview here and there, but thanks to his record, they never lead to anything.

Our community deserves a serious conversation about employing recently released inmates. We need quality programs that place those with troubled pasts in stable jobs while mitigating employers’ financial exposure of hiring a risky employee. In the long run, I’ll bet the employers and the community would benefit.

I try to help Tim stay focused on the long term. I want him to envision a life without the cycle he’s known, and I want him to know that sobriety, hard work and a little luck will get him there. Unless he secures a paycheck, I worry it’s all in vain.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

By Jim Arkedis, Washington  | November 12, 2010; 8:30 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., economy, housing  
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Comments

This is terrible! Stop just reading the news. Help solving the crimes by studying criminal justice at http://bit.ly/ctecjq

Posted by: greyburke13 | November 13, 2010 5:08 AM | Report abuse

How out of touch are you? There are thousands out of work who have no criminal records. They graduated high school. Why should this man get preference?
The larger problem is that the prevailing attitudes that drive policy in DC have driven employers out of the city.
There are no jobs. There are really none for the untrained, uneducated, and especially those with blots on their records.
Time to get real.

Posted by: parkbench | November 14, 2010 3:45 AM | Report abuse

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