SUTTON — Robin Collins is looking for an opportunity to make things right, and she’s glad to have a chance to do so.
Collins, of Preston County, said Tuesday she was looking for a better life for her children and grandchildren, and she was hoping to find an opportunity for a brighter future Tuesday afternoon at the West Virginia Second Chance Job Fair, held at the Days Hotel and Conference Center near Sutton, where people with criminal backgrounds could talk with employers and legal experts about their employment options.
“It’s kind of hard getting a job as a convicted felon,” Collins said. “I don’t know whether to answer that I am [a felon] on a job application or whether I’d get in trouble for lying on an application. I just want to work. I want to give the best that I can to make that happen.
At least 100 people attended the fair organized by the staff of the West Virginia Department of Education’s Diversion and Transition Program, which provides training for juvenile and adult inmates in state facilities.
The job fair was the first of its kind for West Virginia, said Crystal Thompson, program specialist with the Diversion and Transition Program. People who have completed prison sentences are looking for a way to get back on their feet, and getting a job is arguably the most crucial step to make that happen, Thompson said.
“They want to give back in any way, shape or form,” Thompson said. “They want to take care of their families. They want to show the rehabilitation process has worked for them. That’s what we’re here to try to help them figure out.”
The catalyst for Tuesday’s fair was the Mountain State’s Second Chance Law, Thompson said.
The West Virginia Legislature passed the Second Chance for Employment Act in 2017. The law allows for people convicted of certain nonviolent felonies to petition to have those convictions reduced to misdemeanors. It also allows for people convicted of certain crimes to have their convictions expunged from their records between two and five years after their conviction, the end of their incarceration or the end of supervision, whichever is later.
Thompson said her program provides training for inmates that includes everything from getting their GED and how to get their driver’s license to certificate training, including pet grooming, barbering, horticulture and heavy equipment operation.
“We try to keep our students up to date for things that will be of value when they come out for in-demand jobs,” she said.
Thompson said it is inevitable that people will leave prison and re-enter society, hopefully after completing some training available in prison.
“Why not work together to make them the most productive citizens we absolutely can?” she said. “They’re going to come to your communities. Why don’t we do what we can to get them on the right track?”
The second chance provided in the law was literal for Collins, who traveled with four other women who are participants in Preston County Drug Court. Cherity Shahan, their probation officer, brought them on the 2-hour trip from Preston County for the job fair.
Collins, 38, said she had been arrested for fraud, forgery and uttering, and identity theft. She said she wants to use every opportunity in drug court and the Second Chance Law to turn her life around for her family.
“I’m glad to hear I could probably have a second chance at things,” she said. “That’s what my goal is. I’m trying to get a second chance at things and make what I screwed up right.”
In addition to the 30 employer and other resource booths, Legal Aid of West Virginia provided a presentation on the expungement process. Nearly everyone who attended the fair, including employers who had set up booths, sat in on the presentation.
Tim Criner, the vice president of safety and mining for Xtreme Labor Solutions, manned the table for his employer Tuesday. Criner said he considers talking to a job applicant about their past criminal history a part of the regular vetting process.
“Personally, I look at it as everybody messes up,” Criner said. “Some got caught, some didn’t. That doesn’t mean they can’t contribute to the workforce, they can’t be productive and back in society.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks West Virginia last in workforce participation. In 2018, just 53.9 percent of West Virginians who could work were working in 2018, according to the bureau’s data.
Criner said those statistics, paired with the stigma on people who have completed their sentences, show there are chances to make a lot of progress.
“Not only do we have a shortage of workers, but we have workers here who we have basically forced into a box,” he said. “They’re out of jail. Now what? They feel like they can’t do anything, but they may turn out to be some of the best workers you have.”
Cody Burks, 25, traveled from Eleanor, in Putnam County, to Sutton for the job fair, where he said he hoped to learn more about having a larceny conviction expunged from his record so he could join the military.
Burks said he spent about six years incarcerated, as a teen and as an adult. He said he acted out during a rough childhood and ultimately became addicted to drugs.
He said he needed money one day in 2006, so he stole some things and pawned them, leading to his felony conviction.
“It was painful,” Burks said of being processed in the court system. “That’s the hardest part. You got family and stuff like that, and watching them breaks your heart.”
When he heard about the Second Chance Law, Burks said, he had hope.
“When it comes down to it, everybody has hard times,” Burks said. “It’s all about what you do after the fact. You can either sit there and mope around and change nothing, or you can get up and do something about it.
“That’s what I’m here today to try to do.”