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Top lawman helping ex-cons find jobs after prison

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(WVUE) -

One top lawman takes a stand against crime. While he's usually putting criminals in jail, he explains why his personal experiences with violence inspired him to help ex-cons once they're released.

Larry Thomas has a knack for fixing things. Today, the 33-year-old is working on a job site at the Louisiana Cancer Center on Tulane Avenue. It wasn't too long ago that Thomas spent every day at Angola.

“I kinda just started hanging around with the wrong people and just making some bad decisions, you know,” he said.

Bad decisions - breaking the law by committing a burglary - landed Thomas behind bars, sentenced to 10 years. He began his time in 2012.

"I just kept focusing on what I needed to do to get out,” Thomas said.

The west bank native found a prison job doing electrical work and was mentored by a "lifer" through the prison's re-entry program. He admits, the fear of not being able to find a job upon his release weighed on his mind, daily.

“It was difficult, but when you want something bad enough, you do whatever it takes to succeed and rise above the occasion,” Thomas said.

Thomas was granted early supervised release because of his good behavior and his work with the re-entry program. He found a job, thanks to the 30-2+2 program. U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite is the driving force behind the program, which calls for 30 local employers to hire two ex-convicts for two years.

“So far, we've had over 25 businesses that have signed on and committed to the initiative,” Polite said. “Harrah's Casino was actually the first business to step forward and hire as part of our initiative.”

Polite points to a 60 percent recidivism rate in Louisiana and a 45 percent rate nationwide as the number one reason ex-cons need help, not more jail time.

“What are we exactly doing if we're just incarcerating people over and over and over again without any positive results from it?” Polite asked.

Since the program began in 2013, eight ex-offenders are working at New Orleans-area businesses. Thomas and another man are employed by the local chapter of the Electrical Contractors Association.

“I just can’t say enough positive things about it,” said Jason Schumm, executive director of the South Louisiana chapter. “To be fair, there was some apprehension on the part of many at first because it’s a new program, and obviously there’s concern as to how the program is regulated or maintained.”

No one with a violent or sex offense is considered for the program. Schumm concedes he had to talk some of his contractors into hiring ex-cons, but the move paid off. 

“They make ideal candidates for employment. It’s oftentimes an opportunity they didn’t have before, so we're just happy to provide that for them,” Schumm said.

“It’s like a golden opportunity,” Thomas said.

Polite knows firsthand how important it is to be given a chance.

“I would say all aspects of this work really touch on my own personal history,” the said.

Growing up in New Orleans, his father was a police officer but not everyone in the Polite family followed the letter of the law.

“I've certainly had individuals on both sides of this aisle, folks who have come out of prison and successfully turned their lives around and others than have not,” Polite said.

Polite's own brother was murdered. The tragedy and firsthand experience helped propel him into his position as a crusader of sorts, putting away bad guys, but also getting them back on their feet once they come home. 

“Our mission is to ensure public safety and I think for all too long in the country we've relied exclusively on one tool as the means of ensuring public safety,” Polite said.

He believes experimenting with ways to reform ex-cons, is the key to reducing the country's recidivism rate.

“Long-term employment is what we want, not menial jobs, not menial labor, we want long term careers,” Polite said.

Thomas has good motivation for staying on the straight and narrow - his 7-year-old son.

“I want him to do the right thing, to be a man of character,” he said.

Thomas thinks this line of work will make a good career, saying, “I plan on getting into the apprenticeship program of the local 130 IBEW and just striving from there.”

He knows if it weren't for Angola's re-entry program, and the 30-2+2 initiative, he'd still be sitting behind bars instead of making a new life for himself and his son. It proves that hard word does pay off.

In addition to the 25 local businesses who've already signed on with Polite's initiative, he said another 20 have expressed interest and he expects that number to grow. 

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