R. Duncan, M. Pelly, and Stephen J.J. McGuire
Restoring Dignity of Former Convicts and Gang Members: Challenges and Opportunities
Ramon “Monxi” Flores was sitting in Father Boyle’s office when Carlos came through the door. Carlos was 24, had recently been released from Corcoran State prison after serving a 10-year sentence (Exhibit 2.1). He had a shaved head and was covered in tattoos, including two prominent devil horns on his forehead. He was having a hard time finding a job; he had never had a job before. Father Boyle understood why he might not necessarily get hired right away and gave him an opportunity to work in the Homeboy Silkscreen division. The day after Carlos had started the job, Father Boyle called to ask him how it felt to be working. Carlos replied, “It feels proper…I’m holding my head up high.”
For nearly 20 years, Father Gregory Boyle, affectionately referred to as “Father G,” “G-Dawg,” or simply “G,” had been on a mission to find jobs for former gang members and ex-convicts, whose “burdens are more than they can bear.” Father Boyle pled his case before audiences nationwide in hope that an employer might be listening and would want to be “a part of the solution (Exhibit 2.2).” Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit organization founded by Father Boyle in the East Los Angeles district known as Boyle Heights, was primarily a job development and placement service provider. Although Homeboy Industries had an open door policy, its primary objective was to assist at-risk youth, former gang members, and ex-offenders in finding employment (Exhibit 2.3).
Father Boyle entrusted Ramon “Monxi” Flores with the duty of assisting Homeboy Industries’ clients with the difficult task of finding jobs since Monxi was the Employment Supervisor of the Job Developers’ Division. Father Boyle gave Monxi an annual goal to place 1,000 clients in outside employment, a 333 percent increase over the previous year. The reason that Father Boyle assigned such a high figure was due to the incredible surge in former convicts and gang members who were trying to enroll in Homeboy’s training programs, and would therefore need to find employment afterward. Monxi knew that this would not be an easy task. Many employers were concerned with the risks involved in hiring Homeboy Industries’ clients. How could Monxi convince an employer to hire former gang members and ex-convicts? Was knowing that they could change a life enough of a reason for employers to hire from this risky labor pool? What could Monxi do to meet his ambitious goal?
Recidivism and Unemployment for the Ex-Convict Population: A Major Societal Problem
The employment needs of the nation’s ex-offenders were a key issue to policy makers due to the costs of the judicial system and recidivism. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Blacks were six times more likely and Hispanics twice as likely to go to jail compared to Whites. The State of California alone, which is designed to house a total of 82,707 inmates, has a current population of more than 137.2 percent of capacity at 113,463 inmates. This problem is exacerbated by high recidivism rates. When ex-offender employment programs began to roll out in the early 1960s, program developers recognized that ex-offenders were poorly educated and lacked work experience. Therefore, programs for ex-offenders offered job training and job placement. However, many researchers found that those programs had no significant impact on recidivism. Today, more than half of the inmates in the state of California return to prison within six months, and teenage felons have an almost three quarter’s recidivism rate. While this represents a humanitarian concern, it is also a problem for the state and therefore taxpayers as well, since the cost of housing, feeding, and caring for a prisoner has jumped to $64,000 annually, and is projected to continually climb at an alarming pace.
Research identified several important factors to lower recidivism. Those factors included the arrangement of postrelease employment prior to release from prison, work experience, and the strength of social support.
Employers were often reluctant to hire ex-offenders. They were concerned that ex-offenders lacked job skills, work experience, and were not trustworthy. Hiring ex-offenders could potentially be a liability to the employer. An employer willing to hire an ex-offender was generally based on the following factors: The industry, the position, the severity of the crime committed, and the applicant’s work experience.
The majority of ex-offender employment programs were maintained by nonprofit organizations. The common strategy for ex-offender employment programs was quick employment and income because finding a job after release was the priority for ex-offenders with little or no money. However, no consistent goal existed among the many ex-offender programs. It was unclear which was more important, the increase in employment among ex-offenders or the recidivism rate. In addition, there was no consensus on how to assess the success among these programs.
Those who had a criminal record were often caught in a Catch 22 when filling out job application forms. “On the first few applications, I wouldn’t check ‘yes,’ and then they would say if I explained it and didn’t lie, they could’ve hired me,” said Dava Rogers who served six months at City Workhouse in St. Louis for an embezzlement conviction. “When I was truthful, there was never a call back.” Employers could refuse to hire an employee on the basis of a crime, which contributed to the employee returning to crime and drugs. This was legal as long as employers applied it consistently and not just to certain groups protected under EEO laws.
Background checks had become common among American employers. According to a study by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), 82 percent of employers carried out background checks on applicants. Susan Messinger of SHRM noted: “While employers can’t protect employees from all of the world’s ills, they certainly can take important steps to increase both the actual security of their workplaces and the sense of security for employees.” Even if a job applicant sent by Homeboy Industries did not state an arrest or conviction in an application, this information would likely be revealed by a background check.
A Visionary Founder with a Commitment to the Cause
Father Boyle, a third-generation Irish-American, was born and raised in Los Angeles. He received his BA in English from Gonzaga University, MA in English from Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles), a Master of Divinity from the Western School of Theology and a Master of Sacred Theology (STM) degree from the Jesuit School of Theology. Father Boyle taught at Loyola High School and worked with Christian-based communities in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He served as a temporary Chaplain at the Islas Marias Penal Colony in Mexico and Folsom Prison.
In 1986, Father Boyle began working at the Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights. The Dolores Mission Church was the poorest congregation in Los Angeles, located east of the Los Angeles River in the district known as Boyle Heights. The Boyle Heights district, made up of a primarily poor Latino population, was known for its rampant gang activity, drug dealing, and violence. (see Appendix I for a map of Los Angeles). The district was not only distinguished by its large number of housing projects, but by the 17 gangs in the area and more than 10,000 gang members that lived there. (see Appendix II for a network map of the Boyle Heights gangs). While working at the church, Father G realized that most of the teenagers he met had either dropped out or were expelled from school with no place to go. He began a job training and employment referral center for at-risk youth at the church, called Proyecto Pastoral. Father Boyle came to acquire a deep understanding of, and a profound respect for the Boyle Heights community. “He’s a moral force down here,” said Mary Ridgway, a veteran Los Angeles County gang-probation officer. “Greg knows the shot-callers and how to deal with them.”
The History and Evolution of Homeboy Industries’ Programs
In 1992, Proyecto Pastoral was expanded and renamed as Homeboy Industries. The organization’s primary program was called, “Jobs For A Future,” which used a unique and multiservice approach in assisting clients, who were often at-risk youth, ex-gang members, and those recently released from detention facilities throughout Los Angeles County. Homeboy Industries provided job training, work experience, job referrals, and job placement. Homeboy’s mottos were “Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job” and “Futures Not Funerals.” All services provided by Homeboy Industries were free. Forty percent of its clients were females and nearly 75 percent were between the ages of 18 to 35.
After 1992, Homeboy Industries expanded and diversified, eventually moving to a newly constructed headquarters, which housed the Homeboy Bakery, Homegirl Café, the Homeboy Merchandise store, Homeboyfoods.com, Homeboy Maintenance and, at outside locations, Homeboy Silkscreen, distribution of food at farmer’s markets, the Homeboy Food Truck, a diner at Los Angeles City Hall, and Homeboy Catering. Homeboy Industries also has licensing agreements with outside companies, which birthed the Homeboy Bakery at Los Angeles International Airport and the distribution of Homeboy Chips and Salsa at Ralph’s Grocery Stores through an agreement with a private label company, Snak King. Homeboy’s services and assistance programs included the Jobs For A Future (JFAF) program, Work Is Noble (WIN) program, Ya’stuvo Tattoo Removal service, mental health counseling, a release/transition program, and a community service department. The organization also provided training, workshops, and social development programs. Homeboy Industries received some funding from the government; however, its primary source of income came from donations and revenue from its businesses. Father G believed that this allowed Homeboy Industries to be flexible in its programs because it was not restricted to rely solely upon the government.
Personal Adversity and Change
Father Boyle experienced great progress, but also faced danger. He lived somewhat on the edge when caught up in drive-by shootings and other dangerous incidents in Boyle Heights, but in March 2003 he faced an even greater risk when he was diagnosed with leukemia. Temporarily, he placed all his work on hold. After a series of chemotherapy treatments, his leukemia was in remission. Father Boyle’s greatest challenge wasn’t the disease; instead, he wanted to help as many people as possible despite the limitations that his leukemia caused. Father Boyle remained active as the executive director at Homeboy Industries and was a member of the State Commission on Juvenile Justice, Crime and Delinquency Prevention and served on the National Youth Gang Center Advisory Board. He brought onboard managers like Monxi Flores to help make progress toward Homebody’s increasing job placement goals.
Challenges Faced by the Clients of Homeboy Industries
Clients of Homeboy Industries often came from dysfunctional home environments. They were not able to grasp basic work–life concepts that were essential to seeking and maintaining employment once hired. For instance, clients did not understand how to get to work on time, not to smoke marijuana or drink alcohol before work, or anger management. Therefore, Homeboy Industries developed a curriculum of workshops for clients to learn coping skills and help them overcome social and structural deficiencies. (see Appendix III for a list of these workshops).
Changing a Life
“Because Homeboy Industries decided to believe in me, I decided to believe in myself. And the best way I can think of paying them back, is by changing my life, and that’s exactly what I’ve decided to do,” said a graduate of Homeboy Industries. Father Boyle believed that once people felt they were loved and cared for, they would love themselves as well; therefore they were less likely to commit a violent act and more likely to leave the gang life. As soon as they were ready to change their lives, success and hope would not be far away. The JFAF program supported former gang-involved youth, to turn their lives around in a good way and help them become contributing members in the community by assisting in résumé building, providing work experiences, and finding job opportunities.
Homeboy Industries Values and Culture
The first step of changing a life was to follow Homeboy Industries’ three rules: “No hanging, banging, and slanging.” This translated as no hanging out with gang friends, no engaging in crime-related activities, and no selling drugs. The second step was “learning respect.” This was an important concept to improve communication skills and interaction with people, which included lessons such as no chewing gum during an interview, (men) wear your pants above your butt, and no sleeping when on the job. Homeboy Industries offered free tattoo removal for gang members to “erase a link to their past and start clean” because appearance was key for applicants in finding employment.
The Challenge of Measuring Success
Homeboy Industries had no statistical support assessing the performance outcomes of its services. Monxi Flores did not really know how many clients had been hired or kept their jobs. There was simply too much to do with too few resources; the organization did not place a high priority on measuring its performance and keeping track of job retention rates. Moreover, getting hard data was difficult, and there were simply not enough staff members to follow up and to track down the many clients who had received placement services over the years. However, Monxi and his fellow job developers were in the process of creating a form that clients would complete to allow for a follow-up and to keep in contact with both employers and clients. (see Exhibit 2.4 for the Follow-up Hire Form).
Alternative Perspectives on the Homeboy Industries’ Approach
Not everyone agreed with Homeboy Industries’ approach. Paul White, founder of the continuation school called the West Valley Leadership Academy and author of the book White’s Rules, claimed to be able to turn around youth who have been labeled “Los Angeles’ worst of the worst.” White believed in unconditional love—but zero tolerance for rule breakers. He remarked that: “Programs like Homeboy Industries legitimize, glorify and hesitate to criticize the gang culture... [Homeboy Industries] turns illiterate, unemployed gangsters into educated, employed gangsters.” White felt that there should be more emphasis on supporting the dissolution of gangs.
Others suggested emphasis on training soft skills exclusively, at the expense of job-related training. According to a study by Giguere and Dundes, employers’ willingness to take advantage of an employment program for former offenders was related to their degree of social contact with ex-convicts; greater familiarity increased the likelihood of hiring. Giguere and Dundes suggested that ex-offenders would benefit from programs that enhanced their “people skills,” in order to reduce negative stereotypes in the employment application stages.
Not Without Risk
Homeboy Industries’ clients were faced with the daily struggles of assimilating into society and finding employers who were willing to take the risk and responsibility of hiring them. One study conducted in the Baltimore area regarding employer concerns about hiring ex-convicts found that, “the majority (53%) of the employers surveyed were willing to hire an ex-offender described in a hypothetical scenario.”
Yet doing so was not without risk; not only was there the possibility of recurrence of violence but, also, the potential lawsuits that could follow. Violence against customers or fellow employees might result in litigation. In the state of California, negligent hiring and retention is defined as “an employer may be liable to a third person for the employer’s negligence in hiring or retaining an employee who is incompetent or unfit” and “negligence liability will be imposed upon the employer if it knew or should have known that hiring the employee created a particular risk or hazard and that particular harm materializes.” Such legal precedent can render an employer hesitant to hire a former Homeboy Industries graduate. For instance, in the case of the Amtrak employee who shot and seriously wounded his supervisor, the court awarded the supervisor $3.5 million from Amtrak. The action, Smith v. Amtrak (1987), was brought because of Amtrak’s failure to discipline the employee for previous action that indicated violent tendencies. The court ruled that the employee’s violent attack was foreseeable and, therefore, held Amtrak responsible for negligent retention.
With the average settlement in lawsuits for negligent hiring exceeding $1.6 million, many employers shied away from applicants whom they could foresee might engage in workplace violence—they just could not afford to take a chance.
Ramon “Monxi” Flores was one of three job developers at Homeboy Industries and had the most experience in that position (see Exhibit 2.5). He was not a former gang member or an ex-offender; he had no visible tattoos or piercing. Monxi dressed casually with a collared shirt and a pair of jeans. Monxi believed that the title of some of his client’s convictions often spoke falsehoods about their actual character. Monxi knew the situations in which the crimes were committed and the roles his clients played in the crime were easily misconstrued. He further believed that most of his ex-offender clients were not inevitably destined to commit crimes, but instead had learned hard lessons; their crimes were often a turning point. That first opportunity to get a good job and go straight (and sometimes a second opportunity) meant so much to them; Homeboy Industries was their “last stop of hope.”
Monxi Flores was motivated by the opportunity to change lives—not by any numerical target to achieve. However, Father Boyle set a target for Monxi and his two job developers, James Parra and Luis “Lulu” Rivera: place 1,000 clients in outside employment positions. The most difficult task for Monxi was to find enough businesses willing to hire former gang members and ex-offenders. This meant plenty of field trips: going from business to business, trying to develop good relationships with employers.
One day in the field, Monxi went to visit Al and Ed’s Autosound, a retailer and installer of car stereos. He hoped that he might find some job opportunities for his clients. Monxi knew he had plenty of clients who would be perfect for the job of installing stereos, since many could learn to do the job, and music was popular among his clients. Moreover, the urban appearance of Al and Ed’s installers was not too different than that of his clients. Despite Monxi’s optimism, he was ultimately disappointed with Al and Ed’s rejection of his proposal to supply job candidates.
Homeboy Industries attempted to provide help to everyone who asked for it. This was problematic to Monxi, particularly when clients used Homeboy as a cover, or a means to keep the probation officers at bay. Monxi made sure to tell new clients Homeboy Industries’ three golden rules; “No Hanging, No Banging, and No Slanging.” Not everyone respected the rules, with sometimes tragic consequences. In one instance, two employees of Homeboy Industries were targeted by gang members, in separate and unrelated incidences; because, despite working for Homeboy Industries, they continued to take part in gang activities.
Monxi thought it would be easier if all of his clients were parolees and felons; the diversity of his clients made job placement a struggle. His goal was clear—find jobs for 1,000 clients—yet how he was to achieve this remained a puzzle. He planned to work hard at reaching the objective. “There’s no magic wand to the job search,” Monxi commented.
Barriers to employment could be defeated by preparation and by the honesty of the applicant. A client could lie on an application and find a job easily, but this only provided short-term employment. An application was a legal document and when false information was revealed to the employer, the client would be fired and, once again, jobless.
The key to finding employment opportunities was establishing good relations with potential employers. Maintaining good relationships with employers could create more job opportunities later on for other clients. However, despite how much Monxi worked on a relationship with an employer, if a client did not perform at the expected level, Homeboy Industries’ reputation as a supplier of employees was easily jeopardized.
Monxi disseminated employment opportunities as widely as possible; on the other hand, he often wished that employers would be more honest in their description and preference of the type of employee they were seeking. Monxi wanted to send the applicant with the best fit and who was most qualified for the position. Time and again, employers held back their actual preferences, and the right “fit” according to the employer’s said preference was never found.
An obstacle for Monxi’s clients who were on probation or parolees was finding flexible employment. Flexible jobs were necessary for clients who had particular obligations to attend, A.A. meetings, and meet with probation officers. Often, employers did not want police or probation officers near their business activity. Additionally, positions had to pay well enough for the client and his or her family to live. Sometimes parolees could find reasonably well-paying jobs that, unfortunately, did not easily allow compliance with the restrictions set by their parole officers.
A New Opportunity for Homeboy Industries Graduates
According to USA Today, labor unions controlled most of the blue-collar worksites in Southern California and, for decades, limited their membership to a tight-knit group. “You damn near had to be a relative of somebody’s,” according to Jim Watkins, a business manager of the Heat and Frost Insulators Local 5, “It was a tight-knit, almost like a lodge.” By the early 1990s, union membership had dropped dramatically because of increasing retirement that was not replaced by new members. Union leaders began to express great interest in new populations of workers—anyone who was willing to work hard. One group that responded to union leaders’ interest: former gang members and those with criminal backgrounds.
Robbie Hunter, president of the Iron Workers Local 433, did not know how many former gang members or ex-convicts were union members, because the union did not perform background checks. According to Robbie, the Iron Workers union believed that people who joined gangs or committed crimes did so because of a dysfunctional family life and the environment into which they were born. In the Iron Workers union, work ethic was the pathway to success, and past transgressions were not deemed important when selecting members. “If you are not serious about this, then you are not going to learn and we are not going to waste our money on you,” said Robbie. It was the social responsibility of the Iron Workers organization, Robbie believed, to assist those willing to work, regardless of their criminal past.
Julio Silva, a former gang member, drug dealer, and car burglar, joined the Iron Workers union. Silva had served 18 months for a drug possession conviction. After his release from jail, he sought out help from Homeboy Industries. Robbie Hunter visited Homeboy Industries, where he recruited Silva for an Iron Workers apprenticeship program. “My eyes get a little watery, where I was a few years ago and where I’m at now. It’s like another opportunity of life. I’m proud to be an ironworker,” said Silva. Silva had thought that he could only make minimum wage at a fast-food restaurant, but after he finished the apprenticeship, he was earning $49 an hour, enough to support his wife and children.
Meeting Aggressive Job Placement Targets
For its clients, Homeboy Industries was a road to salvation that provided an opportunity to change a life. Despite some roadblocks, Monxi knew that there were more people like Robbie Hunter, willing to give someone like Julio Silva a chance. What could Monxi do to increase the number of employers willing to hire at risk youth, former gang member, and ex-convicts? Was Father Boyle the only beacon of hope Monxi could rely on to spread the word and change the minds of employers? So far, Monxi and the job developers had been very successful. However, with a target of 1,000 job placements, what would he have to do differently than before?
Bliss, Wendy, Legal, Effective References (SHRM, 2001). www.shrm.org
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1 “Father Boyle, Founder of Homeboy Industries,” Fresh Air from WHYY (September 10, 2004); Speaker Presentation, Father Boyle, The Way of the Future: Companions in Mission Conference (May 25, 2004).
2 “Father Boyle, Founder of Homeboy Industries,” Fresh Air from WHYY (September 10, 2004)
3 Buck (2000, p. 1).
4 “Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison” (November 23, 2007).
5 “California’s Prison-Population Reduction is Good News” (February 1, 2015).
6 Buck (2000, pp. 1–3).
7 Buck (2000, pp. 3–6).
8 OPEC Staff, “CDCR Report Shows California’s Recidivism Rate Declined,” January, 16, 2014. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Newsletter.
9 Respaut (January 6, 2016).
10 Buck (2000, pp. 3–6).
11 Fahey, Roberts, and Engel (October 31, 2006).
12 Fahey, Roberts, and Engel (October 31, 2006).
13 Buck (2000, p.11).
14 Buck (2000, p.11).
15 Buck (2000, p.11).
16 Buck (2000, p. 11).
17 Evans, T. 2009 “Ex-Convicts Face a Catch-22 in Job Search,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch./ EEO Equal Employment Opportunities.
18 Evans, T. 2009. “Ex-convicts Face a Catch-22 in Job Search,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch./ EEO Equal Employment Opportunities.
19 Evans, T. 2009. “Ex-convicts Face a Catch-22 in Job Search,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch./ EEO Equal Employment Opportunities.
20 Evans, T. 2009. “Ex-convicts Face a Catch-22 in Job Search,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch./ EEO Equal Employment Opportunities.
21 Business Know-How 2008. “SHRM Finds Employers Are Increasingly Conducting Background Checks to Ensure Workplace Safety.” http://businessknowhow.com (accessed January 20, 2008).
22 Evans, T. 2009. “Ex-convicts Face a Catch-22 in Job Search,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch./ EEO Equal Employment Opportunities.
23 Iwata (July 10, 2005).
24 Crogan (March 12, 1993).
25 Iwata (July 10, 2005); Crogan (March 12, 1993).
26 Zavala (May 18, 2007).
27 “Reducing Gun Violence: Operation Ceasefire in Los Angeles.” (February, 2005).
28 “Reducing Gun Violence: Operation Ceasefire in Los Angeles.” (February, 2005, pp. 7–8).
29 Morrow (August, 1999).
30 Interview with Ramon September 2007. “Monxi” Flores, Coulter, Steve, “Father Knows Best,” New Angeles Monthly.
31 Raskin and Kat (Fall 2005).
32 Crogan (March 12, 1993).
33 Homeboy Industries brochure (www.homeboy-industries.org).
34 Homeboy Industries brochure (www.homeboy-industries.org).
35 Boyle, Father Gregory, Interview. “Homeboy Industries,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
36 Effective Business Leadership and Management. http://associatedcontent.com/article
37 Homeboy Industries brochure (www.homeboy-industries.org).
38 Interview with Alison Camacho.
39 Homeboy Industries brochure (www.homeboy-industries.org).
40 Homeboy Industries brochure (www.homeboy-industries.org).
41 Interview with Ramon “Monxi” Flores.
42 Father Boyle, Interview, Fresh Air from WHYY (September 10, 2004).
43 Father Boyle, Interview, Fresh Air from WHYY (September 10, 2004).
44 Father Boyle, Interview, Fresh Air from WHYY (September 10, 2004).
45 OJJDP News (July 2006).
46 Zavala (May 18, 2007).
47 Choi and Kiesener (2007, pp. 769–86).
48 Choi and Kiesener (2007).
49 Boyle, Father Gregory, Interview. “Homeboy Industries,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
50 Choi and Kiesener (2007).
51 Zavala (May 18, 2007).
52 White (October 19, 2007).
53 White (October 19, 2007).
54 Giguere and Dundes (2002, pp. 396–408).
55 Giguere and Dundes (2002).
56 Kittling (2010).
57 Kittling (2010).
58 Gangs in the Boyle Heights Area of the City Los Angeles, www.streetgangs.com
59 Bliss, Wendy, Legal, Effective References (SHRM, 2001), www.shrm.org
60 Interview with Ramon “Monxi” Flores.
61 Interview with Ramon “Monxi” Flores.
62 Interview with Ramon “Monxi” Flores.
63 Interview with Ramon “Monxi” Flores.
64 Iwata (July 10, 2005).
65 Alcoholics Anonymous was an organization that established meetings where people recovering from alcoholism could share their experiences and help solve each other’s common problem. www.alcoholics-anonymous.org
66 Quinones, S. (May 21, 2007).
67 Quinones, S. (May 21, 2007).
68 Quinones, S. (May 21, 2007).
69 Quinones, S. (May 21, 2007).
70 Interview with Robbie Hunter.
71 Quinones, S. (May 21, 2007).
72 Quinones, S. (May 21, 2007).
73 Quinones, S. (May 21, 2007).
74 “Reducing Gun Violence: Operation Ceasefire in Los Angeles.” (February 2005, p. 7).
Area Map of Los Angeles County 73