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Columns

Reformed ex-convicts should get fresh start

By ERNEST HOOPER
Published October 24, 2006


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From Robert Blount's perspective, 32,000 people with unique needs are joining our Florida community next year, and we're probably going to look the other way.

We won't care about them finding a job or a place to live. We won't worry about their success. We won't extend a hand, and the apathy very well may result in our community being hurt and our lives being altered in a negative way.

Blount, president of Tampa's Abe Brown Ministries, is talking about ex-offenders, and he wants you to know that whether you're ready or not, the former prisoners are coming back to live among us.

"There's nothing we can do about them coming out," Blount said Monday via phone while in between meetings at the Department of Corrections in Tallahassee. "The question is: Who do you want to come back? Do you want someone with a skill or someone who comes out hopeless and eventually is going to put you in harm?"

Blount is not naive enough to think every ex-offender can be transformed, but he believes there should be opportunities for former prisoners who are committed to change.

The possibilities for those given the tools to succeed are endless. Just ask Charles S. Dutton, who will be the keynote speaker at the ministries' 23rd annual celebration Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium. Tickets are $60 and can be obtained by calling 813 247-3285.

For more than 20 years, Dutton's face and bright smile have been featured in television shows and movies. He played Fortune, the groundskeeper and mentor in Rudy, and Sheriff Ozzie Walls in A Time To Kill. He drew rave reviews for his portrayal of Chief Charles Moose in a made-for-TV movie about the Washington, D.C., snipers, and other TV credits include guest appearances on House, Threshold, The L Word, The Practice and The Sopranos.

Dig deeper into Dutton's bio, however, and you wonder if his career would have developed had he not acquired a taste for the theater while serving 7½ years in prison for fatally stabbing a man during a street fight. Later, Dutton was able to study acting at one of America's most prestigious schools.

Dutton is fond of saying, "I went from jail to Yale."

Clearly, Dutton is an ideal speaker for Abe Brown Ministries, but how he landed with the group is something of a story. An administrator at the nonprofit heard a radio ad on WSJT-94.1 FM promoting Dutton's appearance at a church in Lakeland.

She called WSJT's George Nix, who put the ministries in touch with a Lakeland couple. The couple is friends with Carl Gordon, who played Dutton's father on the short-lived series Roc. One thing led to another and Dutton agreed to do it.

"There was a little prayer and a lot of faith involved," Blount said.

Now he's hoping that Dutton can help deliver a call to action about re-entry. According to Blount, Hillsborough County ranks second in Florida in the number of ex-offenders returning to society. Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco combined will be home to 22 percent of the ex-offenders being released in the next 12 months.

The constant news stories about crime and elected officials' "tough on crime" mantras have hardened our hearts, but we're bound to see a repeat of these acts if we don't open our mind.

Two out of every three ex-offenders end up back in jail.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or hooper@sptimes.com.

[Last modified October 24, 2006, 05:27:08]


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