SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The average inmate population across the state of Georgia is close to 34,000 people, but after they've served their sentence, it can be hard to transition back into society and get a job.
A group of local law enforcement agencies and the City of Savannah want to break the stigma of felons not being employable.
"One of the main barriers returning citizens face when they're released is employment. If they don't have employment, they're not providing for their families or themselves, and it leads back to a life of crime or recidivism. They're going to do something to find money or to make money," said Nic Roberts, U.S. Attorney's Office.
It was a packed house full of local business owners eager to learn what it means to hire a returning citizen. Derek Curry shared his story from the military, to prison, and now back into the workforce.
"To be a returning citizen means you've been through more than the average person has gone through," said Curry. "First thing we have to do is realize that they are people, and you know, each person - they should deal with their crime. It's not about before they come in, it's about after you've sat down with them."
At the age of 31, Curry served more than four years for trafficking cocaine, using the government's equipment.
He now uses his struggles to empower others with his testimony.
"They're better people because of what they've been through, so if we understand that aspect of checking the box, then we understand that okay, give them an opportunity to let them speak to who they are, who they really are, and then not just judge them off what they've been through in their life," Curry said.
He says it wasn't easy finding a job after prison, given he was either overqualified because of his military background, or because he checked that he was a convicted felon in the box on the application.
"To tell a person as they come into the door that if you've been to prison we're not going to consider you at all, we think that that's a mistake, because there are a number of individuals who have been to prison who have skills, who have talents that maybe beneficial to the business community," said US Attorney for the Southern District of GA, Edward Tarver. "We're asking them to not just dismiss, to not disqualify a person on the fact that they have a prison record."
Tarver says it's important to educate employers on hiring returning citizens to become contributing and tax paying members of society.
"We have to show that these folks are a resource that can come and help the community as opposed to preying on the community," said Tarver.
Scott Rasplicka, the owner of Delta Metals in Savannah, says his hiring process consists of looking for good employees regardless of their background.
"These people have paid their debt to society, and it's time to give them a second chance," said Rasplicka.
He adds that there is a stigma attached, but those he has hired fit right in, and are great workers and productive citizens.
"When you have one in two individuals returning with criminal records, that's a fact we can't ignore, and so we definitely want to embrace them and give them every opportunity possible, and one of those key opportunities is employment," said Katina Wheeler, Dismas Charities.
Organizers at Wednesday's conference say they're not asking you to not ask these individuals about their criminal history, but rather have an open and honest conversation with them.