Dallas City Council earmarks grant money to help ex-offenders get back on their feet

Omar Narvaez said his brother had trouble finding a job in Houston when he was released from prison.

The Dallas City Council member said he doesn’t want that to happen to others who have paid their debt and want to become productive members of society.

He and other City Council members voted unanimously Wednesday to allocate up to $500,000 in state grant money toward housing and job skills training and placement for those leaving prison so they don’t wind up back behind bars.

Narvaez called it a first step toward the city’s goal to “reimagine” public safety because it addresses the root causes of crime. The money comes from a Texas Department of Criminal Justice grant.

“This is just a start,” he said.

As part of the initiative, council members awarded the Regional Black Contractors Association of North Texas Inc. a two-year service contract to provide the support services for those re-entering the Dallas workforce. The Dallas-based group advocates for Black-owned businesses.

The project was in the works prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but the outbreak gave it particular urgency, city officials said.

“In light of COVID-19 and the impacts on the individuals targeted by this project, it is critical to implement this program,” a city report said.

The project aligns with the city’s REAL Change initiative outlined in next fiscal year’s proposed $3.8 billion budget. A total of $1 million is earmarked for those leaving Texas prisons and re-entering society.

Rick Davis, executive director of Chains of Grace, a Tarrant County-based Christian nonprofit, said safe housing and employment are the key factors that determine whether an ex-inmate will succeed.

“They are everything. Otherwise, you’re setting them up for failure,” Davis said. “I cannot overstate how important they are.”

City Manager T.C. Broadnax said during a budget workshop earlier this week that his goal is to address social justice issues as well as the city’s violent crime rate. Broadnax said his biggest challenge was putting money toward “safety net” social services while also preserving public safety.

An inmate works outdoors at a Texas prison unit in Huntsville, Texas on Thursday, June 25, 2015. A city of Dallas initiative will help ex-offenders find jobs as they transition back into society. (Staff Photographer)

Bureau of Justice data indicate that about three-quarters of the roughly 600,000 people who are released from prison every year are rearrested within five years.

Dallas was recently a test site for a prison re-entry pilot program backed by the White House called “Safe Streets and Second Chances.”

The Charles Koch Foundation pumped $4 million into the 15-month initiative, which seeks to measure how to reduce recidivism and lower costs by providing former offenders with tailored services to help them stay clean. It launched in spring 2018.

The program’s leader, Carrie Pettus-Davis, a criminal justice researcher and an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has called Dallas a natural test site. She has said the city was well ahead of the curve on providing re-entry services for its large ex-offender population.

Chains of Grace provides about 90 beds in multiple houses in the Fort Worth area for ex-offenders as well as food, Davis said. The charity also provides job-interview coaching and clothes them so they “don’t stick out like a sore thumb.”

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Davis said, he didn’t have any problem finding ex-offenders jobs.

“All of them who wanted to work could work,” Davis said. “That’s obviously turned upside down now.”

Most ex-offenders get manual labor jobs, he said. Many end up in manufacturing, but before the public health crisis, others found work in the food service and oil field industries, Davis said.

“Even with a college degree, most of them will start with manual labor,” he said.

Davis says his organization gets between 300 and 500 applications a month from those transitioning out of jails as well as state and federal prisons.

“We’ve taught people how to drive cars. And helped them stay off drugs,” he said. “We have a lot of guys who do real well.”

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