Even though ex-offender threw away a second chance, don't throw in the towel on all

St. Francis of Assisi embraced the leper. Doug the Mechanic, who received the Franciscan spirit as a student at Archbishop Curley High School in Baltimore, tried to embrace the felon, but now he says he's done. "Never again," he declared the other day. "It's a lost cause."

Doug the Mechanic asked not to be identified in this column. He prefers that customers of his repair shop in Harford County not know that he's had an ex-offender working on their cars.

Having an open mind about hiring people with criminal records is not something businesses generally want to advertise.

In fact, it is not something a lot of businesses even try.

But Doug the Mechanic made it his business to give a guy a second chance.

"I'm a Curley boy," Doug said, referring to the archdiocesan high school where he encountered Franciscan friars and the Franciscan values of brotherhood, community service and what Father Michael Heine, Curley's director of guidance, called on Friday "St. Francis's concern for the marginalized, the poorest of the poor."

St. Francis famously embraced a leper, a transforming experience that led to his belief that the divine exists in all humanity, no matter how lowly or scorned. Doug the Mechanic, you might say, did the same by giving a felon a job.

"Yeah, you know, I was brought up with that Catholic thing," he said again, as a way of explaining why he hired a 32-year-old former drug dealer named Jeffrey last September to work in his shop.

How did he know Jeffrey had been a drug dealer?

"I asked, and he told me. He was upfront about it," Doug said. "We didn't do a background check. I asked if he'd had anything violent on his record, and he said he didn't, just drug dealing. So I gave the guy a job washing, waxing, detailing and prepping cars. It paid $7 an hour, plus 12 percent of any job he did. If he were doing a $100 job for a [car] dealer, say, he'd get $12."

Jeffrey made $280 a week, and his monthly bonus amounted to about $460.

"Everything was great for a while," Doug said. "Then, about four months in, the transmission went on his car, a '93 Chrysler Imperial. So we agreed to fix it for $1,000, and he agreed to pay for it over time. We had to cash his paychecks for him and take $50 out of each to get paid, but we got paid."

That doesn't sound so bad. What else happened?

"January, we get a phone call," Doug continued. "Jeffrey's daughter's mother got burned out of her apartment, and he needed to borrow money to get them set up in another place, or get them clothes, something like that. So we loaned him $360. I told him I needed him to pay it back within 12 weeks.

"Then, in February, I get a letter from Child Support Enforcement in Baltimore City, saying he owed child support, and that we had to garnish his wages $54 a week. Back in September, I had asked [Jeffrey] if he had any garnishments for child support, and he'd said no. So, he'd lied to me.

"Then, about four weeks ago, he sold the Imperial. It was impulsive; he only got $600 for it. He said he was putting the money in the bank for a new car. My partner and I offered to line him up with a '94 Buick Le Sabre, for $1,400, inspected. ... Then, Jeffrey went on vacation."

And apparently Jeffrey blew all his money on vacation. When he got back to Maryland, he couldn't afford the Buick. He soon stopped showing up for work, and now he's done. So is Doug the Mechanic.

"I won't hire an ex-felon again," he said. "We did a lot for this guy and, you know, you feel like it was a waste. He still owes us $360, plus we owe $216 to the uniform company for his uniform."

Felon failure happens. It's hard to quantify it, but a Maryland recidivism rate of 51 percent should give you some idea. Many ex-offenders can't find jobs because so many companies simply won't hire them. Some just blow the good opportunities they get.

Men and women who seek and accept help do much better.

The Maryland Re-Entry Partnership, for instance, is an intensive case-management program that connects inmates to services they'll need -- housing, health, employment, education -- about three months before they're released. REP claims a 70 percent success rate for the limited population it has been able to help since 2001. It should be expanded to every prison.

I've heard many other success stories. I disagree with Doug: It's not a lost cause.

But it's the guys who go it alone -- without support from a re-entry program -- who account for the failure and make it harder on the rest seeking to improve their lives.

Guys like Jeffrey emerge from prison unprepared for the real world -- few if any marketable skills, limited or no work ethic, lingering street mentality, poor decision-making -- and they relapse into old habits.

Had Jeffrey come to Doug the Mechanic under the auspices of an ex-offender program -- Goodwill of the Chesapeake's, for instance, or STRIVE Baltimore -- I bet he'd still be detailing for Doug. (He also would have come with a $5,000 federally backed bond to protect Doug, or any employer, from loss of money or property due to ex-offender dishonesty.)

I'll say this for Doug: He obviously cared about the outcome here. What he did was in the spirit of St. Francis -- "It is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned" -- and this ol' Archbishop Curley boy did more than a lot of employers have done in the effort to reduce recidivism and build a better community: At least he tried.