OCEAN TOWNSHIP — William Berry lost his accounting job, his family, his home and potentially his freedom after he was arrested last year on theft charges, and he thought the world was coming to an end.
The 49-year-old Asbury Park man, though, began to see a glimmer of hope through the New Jersey Courts’ job training program. He found work as a cook at Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park. And he is gearing up to go to culinary school.
“The job program, they gave me the ability to put shelter over my head, to put food on my table, and to earn money to pay my fines and my restitution,” Berry said. “And it is just an overwhelming feeling that I do have this second chance within this program.”
Monmouth County officials hope to replicate Berry’s success story. The board of commissioners teamed up with the New Jersey Courts on Tuesday to host a job fair at the Monmouth County Probation Office, connecting workers with criminal records with employers.
The event was the first of its kind in Monmouth County, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. New Jersey has been taking steps to make it easier for low-level offenders to get back on their feet. And employers have been hard-pressed this summer to find enough workers to keep their operations afloat.
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“I think there’s a way out of this,” Commissioner Director Thomas A. Arnone said of the labor shortage. “I think there’s people that really want to work that we can reach out to.”
The fair attracted about 100 job seekers and a dozen or so employers, including Food Circus, Shaker ShopRite and QuickChek. In some cases, the face-to-face connection paid off quickly.
Wesley Butts, 40, of Asbury Park, said he landed three interviews and a job offer from a staffing agency that was hiring for Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson. He could start at the theme park Monday if he wanted, he said.
“I was skeptical at first, but I’m glad I came,” Butts said.
The event was part of the New Jersey Judiciary JOBS program in which employers team up with the probation division to find job candidates.
It isn’t an easy road for workers. Berry, who eventually was sentenced to probation, said he has to check in with his probation officer every morning and night and submit to random drug tests. In return, he gets job training and employment that has helped him pay the bills.
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The payoff? Residents with criminal records return to the work force instead of prison and contribute to the economy, said Superior Court Judge Lisa P. Thornton, assignment judge for Monmouth County.
“We all tend to look at (criminal justice as) not my backyard, not my life, what’s in it for me,” Thornton said. But “in a very real sense, re-entry and providing good job opportunities to folks is a public safety issue.”
“When you take low-level offenders, low-level drug offenders, folks that are low risk, and continuously get them into this rat wheel of jail incarceration, jail only makes smarter and better criminals,” she said. “And if our goal is to create a community that is safe and vibrant and full of jobs, we need to (highlight) the public safety part.”
New Jersey has tried to ease the burden on job seekers who have criminal records. Former Gov. Chris Christie signed a law in 2014 that prevents employers from asking job candidates about their criminal history during the initial application process.
Still, Myra Carter, chief probation officer for Superior Court in Monmouth County, said her department has about 4,000 clients. And the unemployment rate for them is about 20%, more than three times higher than the county’s jobless rate of 6% in May.
People on probation provide an under-utilized source of labor for employers at a key time, officials said, noting businesses during the pandemic have had trouble finding enough help to keep their operations going.
There is no shortage of reasons: Workers are receiving extra unemployment benefits until September; they don’t have as many options for child care; they are nervous about gettting COVID in the workplace; they are holding out for full-time jobs.
It has prompted restaurant owners in particular to search for alternatives. Jim Flynn, founder and chairman of Jersey Shore Restaurant Week, said he has been working with local restaurateurs on a new program to hire workers with criminal records.
The process isn’t risk-free, he said. Sometimes they don’t show up for work or don’t last.
“I don’t get frustrated because I feel like these are people who have made some bad choices, and that’s not going to turn around overnight,” Flynn said. “You’ve got to be patient, and they’ve got to kind of re-program themselves to be responsible, when to show up and to do those things.”
“What my feeling is,” he said, “is if we have to talk to 200 people, but we can change the lives of 50, I’m thrilled.”
William Berry thinks he’s on the right path.
He said he was going through a difficult time in his life, when he turned to drugs and then to theft. And soon, every day was a challenge. He would wake up each morning, unsure where he was sleep that night.
Berry faced years of jail time after he was arrested, but he found a lifeline through the Drug Court, giving him what he said was a “desire to keep fighting, keep moving.”
“I was unsure if I was going to be accepted into the program because there is a process you go through whereby the judge can either accept you or deny you,” Berry said. “I was fortunate enough to get accepted. So with that it’s given me a second chance. It does give me the ability for a whole new life, leaving those dark times behind me.”
Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy and health care industry for more than 20 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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