By Ed Runyan
What could be more politically incorrect than offering sympathy and understanding to an individual who has been convicted of a crime?
And yet, that’s what Ohio Gov. John Kasich did this year when he supported and signed Senate Bill 337, which increased the number of convictions a person could get expunged from their record and other things to help ex-convicts find employment.
Kasich, speaking in Cleveland, quoted the Bible in justifying the legislation: “Sin no more, and for those who have never sinned, cast the first stone,” Kasich said. “There is a big element of redemption throughout Scripture and that we all make mistakes.”
Warren Mayor Doug Franklin and Trumbull County Commissioner Frank Fuda took on a similar tone in recent weeks, participating in a meeting with two men recently released from prison trying to start up The Lateral Foundation — an organization they hope will provide support to those leaving prison.
Franklin and Fuda said they have lots of conversations with people who return to Trumbull County after leaving prison who say they want to be productive citizens but don’t get the chance.
“It is a big problem,” Fuda said. “We have so many kids, so many adults who have nowhere to go. There is a need for our companies to give some of these kids a chance.
“A person from Niles has called me several times. He’s got out of jail. He’s working for 7 bucks an hour, $7.25 an hour, and he can’t raise his family on that money,” Fuda said. “He keeps trying and trying. As soon as they see he has a record, they seem to want to keep away from him. It’s not a good thing.”
“There is a cost of recidivism,” Franklin said of the term that means returning to prison. “We all pay. We need to realize we have a stake in the future. These men and women will be our neighbors.”
The two ex-cons are former Niles dentist Anthony Montevideo, 44, who says an addiction to Oxycontin after a battle with cancer led him to aggravated drug possession and other charges; and Phillip W. Stern II, 39, of Lorain, who recently got out of prison after killing a Grafton woman while fleeing from police and driving drunk.
Montevideo said he’s speaking about his experiences to try to help others.
“I have been out since April. I have a doctorate degree. I have a bachelor of science degree. I put out 203 resumes. I did not get one interview,” he said. “Mr. Fuda actually attempted to help me with employment. I couldn’t get hired.
“I’m in a boat that I was hearing about from all of these other prisoners while I was in prison. I can’t get a job. I thought I’d be able to get a job. Child support is all over me. They took my driver’s license. Thank God for my mother because I have a place to live.”
During his five years in prison, Stern said he observed that “there are so many good people in prison. I don’t know what happened ... whether they were abused mentally or sexually or whatnot. I don’t know. I came from a good family.
“I was like, ‘What could keep these people from coming back to prison over and over again?’” Stern said. “I seen during the time I was there they would come back two and three times. And they were doing well while they were in [prison], and they would get out and get a job and go right back to their old addictions.
“My idea was basically we need to get them serious psychiatric help, because they’re not receiving that in prison. When they can treat the core issues, then it will be easier to treat the underlying issues, which is the substance abuse,” he said.
The organization will also attempt to get them housing and job training, Stern said.
Prison officials have told Stern they support Stern’s ideas and will help the foundation, and will make information available on how individuals behaved in prison to help assess their needs shortly after they leave.
Montevideo and Stern said they believe a host of state and federal programs as well as private foundations offers grants focused on addressing these problems.
Franklin said he’s seen ex-cons who deserve a chance, especially those who have a relationship with God.
“They’re going to be OK. They’re not going back to prison,” Franklin said. Their relationship with God “sustains them through the mean times, but they still have problems with employment,” Franklin said.
Participating in the meeting were representatives from U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan’s office, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative and the Warren Urban Minority Alcohol and Drug Abuse Outreach Program Inc., which has been assisting inmates for 30 years.
“I don’t think you can ever have too many re-entry programs,” said Beverly-Jean Pollard, executive director of Warren UMADOP.