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Meet the Competition

Ex-cons clog Cleveland's unemployment lines. And it's about to get worse

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For those first 20 years,Michael Brown never had problems getting a job. Perhaps it was his unfailingly polite demeanor. Maybe it was the put-together vibe he exuded, with his ever-present wire-framed glasses and the crisp clothes he wore even on casual days. Brown looked every bit the part of a disciplined, get-it-done type of guy. And for those 20 years, he was.

A native of Cleveland's Lee Harvard area, he served a stint in the Marines during the 1970s. He eventually moved to Columbus, where he worked for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. "I was a coding officer," he says. "It was inputting information off military contracts into the computer."

And through it all, he was addicted to crack. "I kept myself up pretty nicely," Brown says. "Hardly anybody was able to tell that I was on drugs."

But because of his habit, Brown bounced from position to position, never lasting more than four years in any one place. Living for a while in Ashtabula, he found his life unraveling when he became involved in a fight he claims was instigated by his then-wife. When he tried to flee, he only made matters worse. "I just happened to take off running; I was tired of fighting with these guys," he remembers thinking. "I ran into a house."

Unfortunately for Brown, the home belonged to a county sheriff's deputy. He asked the man to call police, and the deputy obliged. When an officer arrived, it was Brown who was arrested.

He was convicted on charges of burglary and tampering with evidence, and spent the next year at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown. When he got out, he returned home to Cleveland, where he had a felony next to his name and no shortage of company on the unemployment line.

The neighborhoods of Northeast Ohio — and especially Cleveland — are a hub for ex-offenders. According to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, it's strictly a numbers game: In fiscal year 2011, about 22,000 people were sent to Ohio's prisons; 18 percent of them (around 4,000) came from Cuyahoga County — more than Hamilton County (Cincinnati) and Franklin County (Columbus) combined.

"Our general sense is that most offenders go back to the county from which he or she was sentenced — usually also the offender's home county," says ODRC spokeswoman JoEllen Smith.

But Northeast Ohio, it seems, gets an annual ex-con bonus: According to the Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry and the ODRC, about 5,000 inmates return to Cuyahoga County from state prisons every year — around a thousand more than we send off to the pen in that same span.

And there's no relief in sight: The number of ex-cons funneling back to Cleveland will grow, thanks to recently enacted sentencing reforms that will reduce the state's prison population by 3,000 to 4,000 over the next four years. About 900 of those are expected to return to civilian life in Cuyahoga County, and 79 percent of them will land in Cleveland.

Most will wind up in poverty-stricken areas. According to a study by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank that researches social and economic issues, the majority of returnees will settle in five of the city's most socially and economically fragile neighborhoods: Glenville, Hough, Central, Mount Pleasant, and Union Miles. In Central, for example, the 2009 median household income was about $7,600. The same figure for Hough was close to $14,000. Both were well below the city's median income of roughly $24,700.

And they'll return to a region where competition for work is ferocious even for those without criminal histories, where unemployment rates have hovered around 10 percent for years.

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