Lorenzo had a hard time concealing his nervousness. Standing in front of a large room packed with Boeing employees, the tall, lanky black gang member described the arc of his life. At 22, he had spent nearly a third of his life incarcerated.
Peering out of his round, black-rimmed glasses, he talked about his seven months at Homeboy Industries (the largest gang re-entry program in the country), and about how he had moved quickly from the janitorial team to become an assistant in the accounting department. "I used to steal money," he said. "Now I'm counting it."
I had the honor of witnessing Lorenzo's seven-month journey from convict to accounting assistant, watching as he became the young man God had in mind when he made him. But despite his remarkable turnaround and the many things he had to offer an employer, Lorenzo's prospects for finding a job outside our program were dim.
Opportunities for second chances are few for people like Lorenzo. Homeboy Industries is about the only game in town. Most employers just aren't willing to look beyond the dumbest or worst thing someone has done.
Another "homie" recently came to me for help after, for the third time, he was let go from a job because his employer had discovered he'd done five years in prison. He told me the boss said, "You're one of our best workers, but we have to let you go." Then, with a desperate sadness, the young man added: "Damn, G. No one told me I'd be getting a life sentence of no work."
The business of second chances is everybody's business. We lose our right to be surprised about high recidivism rates if we refuse to hire folks who have taken responsibility for their crimes and have done their time.
Even in this alarming economic climate, where the pool of prospective employees is larger than ever, we need to find the moral imperative as a society to secure places in our workforce for those who just need a chance to prove themselves. This can't be the concern only of a large gang rehab center; it must also be part of our collective response to keep our streets safe and our communities healthy.
As a society, we come up lacking in many of the marks of compassion and wisdom by which we measure ourselves as civilized.
We are among the handful of countries that has difficulty distinguishing juveniles from adults where crime is concerned. We are convinced that if a child commits an adult crime, that kid is magically transformed into an adult. Consequently, we try juveniles as adults. We still execute people. And we belong to a small, exclusive club of countries that brands felons forever and denies them voting rights, access to employment and, sometimes, even housing.
Waiting for a piece of legislation or an elected official's change of heart would seem unwarranted. Instead, faith communities and networks of employers need to create a groundswell that will afford opportunity to a population long shut out and denied a chance at redemption. And because gang involvement has always been about a lethal absence of hope, making room in the workplace for those who have made mistakes could also make a big difference in our public safety.
The mark of our society as civilized will come when we embrace confidence in the power of redemption.
Gregory J. Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is executive director and founder of Homeboy Industries. He is the author of "Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion."
© 2011 Los Angeles Times