Obstacles on the road to a man's redemption

Take LaFawn Weaver, for instance. Here's a young man who admits to making bad choices and getting arrested a couple of times -- back when he was a teenager, primarily -- and blowing a good job because he liked to smoke reefer. OK. So it's time to move on. He says he's made a personal declaration to try again and do it right. But so far, Weaver hasn't been able to find the legitimate job that gets him off the street for good and into America's taxpaying, mainstream work force.

So he contacted The Sun for a little help.

I met him the other day, and we've been talking and exchanging e-mails. I listen. I ask questions. He shows me his criminal record, which he carries with him. He tells me about his experiences, the good stuff and bad, including the open-air homicide of a 25-year-old friend in 2001.

Weaver has computer skills and street smarts. He is a high-energy guy, loquacious and keenly self-aware. We've had a couple of chats that got a little heated. But that's OK. I challenge him. He challenges me. And I think now we understand each other, and I'm convinced of the sincerity in Weaver's pledge: no more smoking or selling reefer, and landing a real job.

LaFawn Weaver's experience is instructive to anyone interested in the complex phenomenon of ex-offenders in Maryland -- thousands of men and women seeking work among companies and small businesses reluctant to hire them. There are a lot of ups and downs in each odyssey. The stories are thorny and the problems multifaceted -- many prospective employers chose to reject ex-offenders, and some ex-offenders make bad choices that hurt their own chances.

Weaver contacted me after reading a column that quoted the mother of a 33-year-old man who was shot to death in West Baltimore last month. That story, Weaver says, made him redouble his efforts to get out of the game for good.

"I am a black man with a criminal record trying to keep my life from being a waste," he wrote in his first e-mail to The Sun. "I'm 27, I've buried more than enough childhood friends, and I sincerely don't want my mother to be in this same position telling this story."

Weaver grew up in Cherry Hill, in South Baltimore. He graduated from Cardinal Gibbons in 1996 and attended Bowie State for three years. In summers, he worked two jobs to pay his college bills.

When he was 18, Weaver received probation before judgment (PBJ) for an automobile theft in Anne Arundel County. (He says he went joyriding in a rental car he hadn't rented.) A year later, undercover police officers in Baltimore arrested him for trying to sell cocaine. For those charges, Weaver received a six-year suspended sentence with three years' probation. He successfully completed his probation and, Weaver says, a city judge later reduced his felony convictions to PBJs.

Still, Weaver says, even this relatively limited criminal history hurts his efforts to get a job.

In one instance, in 2003, he worked nearly three months for a bank before being told that the 1996 theft charge disqualified him from employment with that institution. Weaver says he had listed his offenses on his job application, and that his work as a temporary employee had been good. He says he was told that federal banking regulations prohibited his hiring.

It was a job he really liked, too -- good pay, good benefits. "I just knew it was too good to be true," he said.

There was another job he liked almost as much, with a warehouse company in Odenton. But Weaver knows he can't blame the loss of that job on anyone but himself -- he was still smoking marijuana at the time, and it showed up in a urine test at work.

Weaver has found various jobs with temporary employment agencies, and he admits to periods of discouragement, when he didn't bother to look for work at all, and he turned to selling reefer to generate income.

Last year, he came close to getting a full-time job as a technician with Verizon but says he was told the company could not hire him until he was fully seven years past the completion of his last probation for a felony. His last probation ended in 2000.

"This experience really hit me hard," Weaver wrote in his e-mail. "After the Verizon loss, I began to get proactive with my criminal record. In June 2005, I returned to court and my felony convictions were changed to probations before judgment. However, this is only a Band-Aid to the problem because apparently my felonies still come up in background checks.

"I have been actively pursuing a job, and I won't stop, but if you could give me a reference, forward my story along to someone that can help, or just add my story to the others, I would appreciate it. I'm not looking for any handouts, I will earn my keep. But the older I get, the harder this struggle gets."

I told Weaver to be patient (easy for me to say), and I hooked him up with one of the many Sun readers who have volunteered in recent weeks to mentor young men trying to make the transition from street or prison.

"I want to work with my mind, I want to finish school," LaFawn Weaver said the other day. "I go to church. I have a certain air and peace about myself now. ... I just need someone to accept me, to accept my history."

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