I'm delighted to hear the Philadelphia Eagles believe in giving ex-cons second chances. The city is home to 200,000 people with criminal records. When and where should they report for duty?
The Eagles have 200 full-time employees, not including players, plus 2,100 subcontractors on game days. Surely, an NFL team with $1.6 million for a VIP who electrocuted animals could scare up entry-level jobs for a few more ex-cons - especially those guilty of minor drug or nonviolent offenses.
I'm not suggesting the Eagles install former burglars in the front office or coke dealers on the offensive line. But if the team really is serious about second chances, why not set aside spots for ex-offenders to pour beer, sell souvenirs, wash uniforms, or work the warehouse?
Jeff Lurie can skip the tortured soul-searching. I've written enough about ex-cons to know they've got plenty of the "self-hatred" the Eagles owner sought before he agreed to roll the dice on Michael Vick.
Sentenced for life?
Each year, 35,000 people return from prison to Philadelphia facing bleak job prospects and a 60 percent chance of going back to jail.
Most job applications ask if you've ever been found guilty of a crime. People with drug convictions are barred from positions at airports, in nursing homes, or as security guards. Nurse's aides and car salesmen with felony records can be denied a license, even if it's been years since they broke the law.
"Ex-offenders are everywhere," says Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety. "Changing the culture of what they can and cannot do is one of our biggest hurdles. We can't have a dual-track society."
Except, we do. And some ex-cons frighten us more than others.
Martha Stewart served her time and returned to her eponymous empire. Computer hackers become security experts. Corrupt politicians reinvent themselves as consultants.
"The Eagles believe they can get value from Michael Vick," Gillison realizes. "We want businesses to see that ex-offenders can be valuable employees. What someone did should not define them forever."
A work in progress
The Mayor's Office for the Reentry of Ex-Offenders (www.phila.gov/reentry/) is, like its clients, a work in progress. The budget's been slashed and targets lowered, but Gillison proudly points out that of the 597 people in the program last year, 74 percent are working. Even better? Only 3 percent committed another crime.
Sadly, not a single firm has taken the city up on the offer of a $10,000 tax credit per ex-con hired. Employers blanched at wage rules and the publicity. Apparently, no one wants to brag about having former felons on the payroll unless they throw footballs for a living.
"Last year, Eastern University trained nine ex-offenders to be paralegals," Gillison reports. All were placed in law firms. Which firms, he can't say.
"The fear factor," he notes, "has to be addressed."
If the Eagles really want to score points in this city, they'll step up and shed the stigma. Hiring 76 ex-offenders full time at $10 an hour would equal the $1.6 million Vick is to be paid this year.
Lurie and coach Andy Reid should speak out about the transformative power of work and nudge other corporate giants to join them in breaking the cycle of crime. When ex-offenders succeed on the job, hold a news conference just like after the game.
Eagles spokeswoman Pamela Browner Crawley tells me there are "several" ex-offenders working for subcontractors at the Linc, but she can't say how many, in what capacity, or what they earn.
What is clear? That the Eagles have no plans to make any more high-profile risky hires. The team spent all its second chances redeeming one celebrity quarterback.
"When we made the announcement about Michael Vick, we were not really making a social statement about reentry," Browner Crawley tells me. "This was a specific opportunity for a person with certain talent. It's a business decision."