Mr. Nathan

Human Resources, Recruitment & Training

The Hope and Promise of a Second Chance

By Arte Nathan, President & Chief Executive Officer, Strategic Development Worldwide

It started as a favor: a local politician looking to help a constituent find a job. As Steve Wynn's HR guy, I was responsible for hiring lots of people and told him I had some ideas: try this guy out as a laborer and see how it works out. At the time we had more applications than we needed, but this seemed like the right thing to do. As I learned, good intentions like this need experience to make them successful.

The referral turned out to be a gang-banger wanting to go straight: but his buffed up physique, tats and missing-eye-without-an-eye-patch were intimidating. Fortunately he was more soft-spoken than gruff, and definitely sincere. I took him to meet a hiring manager who over-reacted a bit when he first saw him, but like me, decided to give it a try after hearing his story. Moral of this story: don't judge a book by its cover when thinking about giving someone a second chance.

He'd served his time, made up his mind to change his ways, and was definitely motivated: but old habits and friends are hard to change and it became apparent more help was needed if he was going to successfully transition to a new life and lifestyle. I knew people at the local police department and got introduced to a few probation officers: they certainly knew more than I did and that led to introductions to local faith-based professionals who also had experience with helping ex-offenders reenter society. This was back during the time when the concept of "it takes a village" was growing popular so I involved others who could help.

But once I stepped through that first door, other applicants with criminal backgrounds began to appear. I met the State Corrections Director who showed me their boot camp for first time non-violent felony offenders: judges and district attorneys had the discretion to assign some to this alternate incarceration experiment. Run by an ex-Marine Drill Sergeant, it was successful in motivating offenders to do what it takes to not ever return to the judicial system: a large part of that solution was helping them get a job when they got out. That's when I took my second step into the world of reentry.

The boot camp graduated 16 guys every six months and I started offering jobs to all of those who wanted to stay in southern Nevada: the hospitality industry has many entry level needs for laborers, kitchen workers, cooks, cleaners and other jobs that can give ex-offenders a chance to prove themselves without being in situations with tempting opportunities. I soon discovered that parole and probation professionals, local clergy, and committed employees from the Nevada's Department of Education, Training and Rehabilitation were all engaged in providing assistance.

Together we came up with the concept that some period of mentoring was needed to help those reentering society and the world of work: ex-offenders face too much peer pressure that needs to be counter balanced. State agencies provide effective oversight, others provided counseling for drug, alcohol and family issues, and the clergy sought to instill character and values. But like someone in a 12-step program needs a sponsor, we recognized that our ex-offenders needed to call someone to get non-judgmental advice, an ear to listen and a shoulder to lean on. At the time I knew a few ex-pro athletes and one or two sympathetic police officers and we put together a 12-month mentoring program to help our second-chance employees stay on their transitional roads to recovery and reentry.

Recidivism is the best measure of a reentry program's success. More than 70% of those released from incarceration unfortunately find their way back if left on their own: the pressures are immense and their options are limited. A job and a supportive environment are both needed if these odds are going to be reversed. The program I started worked with several hundred ex-offenders and had a recidivist rate of 8%.

After 25 years as Steve Wynn's HR guy, I retired and went on to teach and consult. Fast forward a few years and I was invited to join the board of Hope for Prisoners, a non-profit here in Las Vegas that facilitates reentry and reintegration services to men, women, and young adults who are exiting various segments of the judicial system. Their holistic approach is to encourage and impart HOPE to ex-offenders: the program is grounded in the belief that with the proper assistance, ex-offenders returning to the community can overcome the many barriers to successful living that the incarceration experience can create.

HOPE for Prisoners offers each of their participants an 18-month commitment to partner with them and help them navigate the many challenges they will face during the reintegration process. At a minimum, each participant is required to complete a pre-vocational training workshop and is invited to participate in this mentoring program: these volunteer mentors provide the necessary emotional and social support for ex-offenders as they transition to community life.

The secret behind Hope for Prisoner's (H4P) success is its partnership with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD): the agency has fully adopted Hope's mission and vision and participates in every aspect of its programming.

The LVMPD is fully involved and invested in creating the environment of support and success that is the program's 'secret sauce'

  • They have allowed H4P to set up in the Clark County Detention Center to facilitate meetings, coordinate vocational training, more easily get input and feedback, and let the inmates know the kinds of resources available if they're interested.
  • Dozens of Police officers and officials serve as mentors for the program's graduates to help make sure they succeed; the relationships start during training and extend throughout an 18-month period so that no graduate ever feels alone.
  • The monthly graduations are held at Police headquarters and are heavily attended by officials and officers, many of whom address the event, its graduates, and their families.
  • This provides the foundation upon which H4P addresses crime, redemption, families, and communities.

After one year of mentoring, some of Hope's graduates are invited to participate in a 6-month "menternship" program strategically designed to train them to give back and become mentors themselves.

The vision of HOPE for Prisoners is to empower returning ex-offenders and their families to create a successful future built on strategic leadership and character development. They assist those fighting for a second chance, strengthen their communities, and create positive reference points where none existed before.

HOPE for Prisoners staff work to cultivate relationships with business owners and entrepreneurs throughout the community and seek out employers who are willing to partner with them to provide employment opportunities to their participants.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Bob Woodson's Washington-based Center for Neighborhood Enterprise recently learned about this partnership between H4P and the LVMPD. They were so impressed that Woodson recently sponsored a Summit in Las Vegas that focused on repairing the breach between public safety organizations and the communities they serve. Officials and groups from Dallas, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Indianapolis, and Madison County, Indiana's Prosecuting Attorney attended and shared best practices: Hope for Prisoners spotlighted its partnership with the LVMPD.

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas Criminal Justice program has been tracking the progress of HOPE for Prisoners for over a year now. They are looking at people who get a job, keep a job, and get promoted-and how much money they make along the way. Plus, they are collecting feedback from their supervisors, parole officers, and wardens. This is all in an effort to create success metrics for such programs and to sway public and corporate opinion on their social and economic ROI.

Our goal this year is to train other communities and their law enforcement agencies to develop successful reentry programs. My part in this is to encourage HR professionals to research the benefits of hiring of people with criminal backgrounds and begin discussions in their companies to consider this alternate recruiting source.

Another aspect of providing job opportunities for people with criminal backgrounds is the "ban-the-box" movement: it seeks to eliminate the question of most job applications asking whether the candidate has ever been convicted of a felony. I am not a fan of this movement: too often I've seen qualified ex-offenders get rejected after getting a job offer and then having the prospective employee discover the conviction during a background check. I've found that someone who's earned and wants a second chance wants the chance to discuss past indiscretions and future hopes during the interview so that hiring managers can fully assess their sincerity and appropriateness for a position.

Last year I was invited to give a TedX talk (http://www.tedxuniversityofnevada.org/portfolio-item/arte-nathan/) on this subject: it was well received and opened many doors as others learned about the benefits of hiring people with alternate backgrounds. I spoke about never judging a book by its cover, the benefits of giving second chances, and that a good deed is often its own reward. But maybe the most important thing I learned was that just because you can do something doesn't always mean you should; but that there are other times that, because you can, you absolutely should.

There are reentry programs in many cities and states that are coordinated by local agencies. I encourage all hospitality HR professionals to get involved with these initiatives and actively consider people with criminal backgrounds for job opportunities in our industry. For those who have earned it, the real crime may be not offering them that second chance.

Arte Nathan served as Chief Human Resources Officer for Steve Wynn’s gaming companies from 1983 – 2006: he opened and helped operated all of Wynn’s casinos in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Mississippi and China. Mr. Nathan retired from the gaming industry in 2006 and moved to Southern California to live on the beach, consult and write. While there he helped develop and open the Resort at Pelican Hill. Throughout his career, Mr. Nathan oversaw all aspects of HR including employment, compensation, training and development, workplace safety, labor and employee relations, employee communications, human resource information systems, and employee engagement. Mr. Nathan can be contacted at 702-379-6100 or arte808@gmail.com Extended Bio...

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