The Color of Money by Michelle Singletary, Personal Finance Columnist

2010 Color of Money Challenge: Stephanie Harris

Prisoners who are set for release from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women take part in Michelle Singletary's Color of Money Challenge. She will work with them through the year to develop stronger financial habits as they finish their sentences and then start again to rebuild their lives.
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Stephanie Harris

Age: 27

Background: Harris was raised in a middle-income home with parents who expected her to do well.

"I had a great childhood with family values," she said. "When the street lights came on, we couldn't leave the alley behind our house."

Harris, who said she was an honors student, longed to hang out in the streets. "I wanted to see what was around the corner," she said.

Around the corner were friends who were breaking the law -- robbing people and selling drugs. It was an exciting life that Harris said she couldn't resist. The Baltimore native dropped out of school in the 11th grade.

Her work experience consists mostly of selling drugs.

Criminal history: Harris was convicted in 2007 on two counts of possession of heroin and sentenced to eight years in prison. She's a five-time felon, having served time on counts including armed robbery, drug possession and the distribution of heroin and crack cocaine. She will be released soon on parole.

The plan: If repeat offender Harris doesn't change her ways, she could end up being convicted again and spending several decades in prison. This time, Harris says, she's determined to go straight and to support herself and her 3-year-old son, Stephon.

"It's different for me this time because I have a son," she said. "I know if I get locked up again, that's a wrap."

Harris is banking on landing a job with the nonprofit Downtown Partnership of Baltimore working as a "clean sweep ambassador" in the city's core. Most of the workers on the cleaning crew are ex-offenders, recovering addicts or homeless people.

"She's at the top of the list," said Michael Evitts, communications director for the partnership. "As soon as we have an opening, she's the first person who will get a call."

The entry-level job pays $7.25 an hour and comes with benefits, including health insurance, a dental plan and a 401(k) retirement plan with an employer match.

"It's literally a dirty job, but the benefit is not in the work itself but in the job-training experience," Evitts said. "We've seen the value of second, third and fourth chances. We have proof that people can change. It's not always a smooth process, and it doesn't always work out, but you have to try."

This time, Harris says, she's content to work a job with an hourly wage and learn to live on her legal income.

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