TOPPSTEP Provides Second Chance

Imagine you've spent the last seven years of your life locked behind the cells of one of Georgia's prisons. You're up for parole with no means of livelihood, once you're released, and no marketable skills to obtain employment. These are obstacles that ex-offenders face upon being released from prison. Three state agencies recognized the barriers that rehabilitated ex-offenders face and are working together to make the transition from prison to the workforce easier.

In February 1999, Commissioner Michael Thurmond signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles Chairman Walter S. Ray and Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner J. Wayne Garner. The collaborative effort entitled The Offender Probationer Parolee State Training Employment Program (TOPPSTEP) will target recently released rehabilitated ex-offenders and those nearing release with their re-entry into the workforce.

Here's how the program works. Through TOPPSTEP, those targeted for assistance will be ex-offenders who are released from incarceration or prepared through a pre-release program. Through this pre-release program, the Department of Corrections will provide academic and vocational instruction, on-the-job training, counseling, and substance abuse treatment. The Board of Pardon and Paroles will ensure that rehabilitative ex-offenders stay on track and on the job by making sure they receive community-based services, treatment, and supervision. The Georgia Department of Labor then assists rehabilitated ex-offenders in finding suitable and satisfying employment through job fairs and other department services.

TOPPSTEP began as a pilot program in Macon and has grown from a single program to a full service operation in approximately 53 Department of Labor Career Centers across the state. "We're moving more or less back toward training inmates now. At one point in time, training pretty much ceased in the Georgia prison system. And now that practice has been put in reverse," said Wayne Mack of the Georgia Department of Labor. "In fact, you will begin to see more training come on line and more skills training for demand occupations. So, when the ex-inmates exit the system they have the skills under their belt, opportunities to get a GED and other kinds of certification so they can be competitive in the market.

The GDOL has placed TOPPSTEP representatives in all 53 of its career centers. The representatives assist ex-offender customers by removing some of the obstacles they may face when they enter career center offices. TOPPSTEP representatives automatically see ex-offenders. This takes away discouraging barriers that may be associated with applying for service. They don't have the wait times, long lines, or the impersonal intake. TOPPSTEP representatives are already familiar with the customer's situation and can make the visit to the career center less stressful. Of the more than 1600 documented ex-offenders that have been referred to GDOL, approximately 600 have accepted and stayed on a job.

Often employers are skeptical about hiring rehabilitated ex-offenders, because they carry with them the perceived stigma of untrustworthiness. As an incentive for employers to hire the rehabilitated ex-offender, GDOL successfully administers the
Federal Bonding Program. The Federal Bonding Program is a unique placement tool designed to help "at risk" job seekers (i.e., ex-offenders) get and keep a job. The program uses bonds to underwrite specific risks or red flags an employer feels a rehabilitated ex-offender brings to a company.

For those employers who are leery of hiring job seekers with a criminal background, the Federal Bonding Program is intended to "guarantee" the employer that the person hired will be an "honest" worker. Since its inception 34 years ago, the program has proved to be 99% effective. In fact, last year, GDOL Career Center bonding representatives were recognized by the National Federal Bonding Program office in Washington, D.C. for their record breaking performance in returning approximately 75 rehabilitated ex-offenders to work through the bonding program.

Another incentive is the
Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) whereby employers may be able to save tax dollars by hiring ex-offenders.

National Statistics show that offenders who remain employed while under a sentence of probation show fewer overall supervision problems and that well-run community based rehabilitation programs are effective in reducing criminal behavior. The Offender Probation Parolee State Employment Training Program is proving that those statistics are right.