She hasn't seen the death certificate and doesn't want to. Sister Judith Schloegel thinks she already knows what killed Robert James, at least indirectly.

"That Thursday, he got a letter saying he was to be immediately excluded from employment," she said. "He was very depressed when he came in here with the letter. Friday morning, he was found dead."

James was not just another guy who lost his job during tough economic times. He was a 29- year-old ex-con who, according to Sister Judith, had managed to turn his life around. He was fired not for what he was but for what he used to be.

Sister Judith wishes we'd learn to tell the difference. For six years, she has been running a job placement program called LEEO--Liberation of Ex-Offender through Employment Opportunities. One of her most successful projects has been the placement of carefully screened clients as maintenance workers in government buildings, jobs that pay upwards of $5 an hour. The workers actually are employed by private firms under contract with the General Services Administration, the federal "housekeeper."

But there's a problem. The Federal Protective Services Administration, the agency that provides security checks for GSA, runs spot checks on the workers. Anyone found to have been a convicted thief is summarily dismissed. That's what led to James's letter and, Sister Judith insists, his death.

"He was the eighth one of our people (out of 30 placements) to be terminated, after six to 12 months on the job, because of this policy," she says. "I have spoken with them repeatedly, telling them that these are people who are carefully screened and placed, people we certify as ready to return to society. We don't just find them jobs and forget them; we keep them under close scrutiny. Our people don't make problems, and we've got the record to prove it. Not one has been convicted of a new crime while working for GSA.

"Unfortunately, their policy is that if there is any type of relationship between the original charge and the fact that they will be working in buildings where, for instance, women's pocketbooks may be left lying around, that is ground for termination. They give no consideration to the fact that the person is currently in a strong rehabilitative program."

And it does seem to be an unusually strong program. Communities across the nation are looking for ways to relieve severe prison overcrowding, both through alternative sentencing and by looking for ways to reduce recidivism. Sister Judith's program is doing the latter extremely well. 2 LEEO, during its six years of life, has placed 515 ex-offenders with 178 different employers at a cost of just over $1,000 per placement. It costs 20 to 40 times that much per year to keep an offender in jail. How effective is LEEO's counseling? "Our recidivism rate is 4 percent over six years, compared with easily 60-65 percent for all ex-offenders in D.C.

"I explain all of this, and I also explain that it isn't just a matter of finding these clients another job. These jobs qualify as CETA jobs, and you can't find them a second CETA job because the rules say that you have to be out of work for so long and cannot have earned more than a certain amount of money.

"I tell them all these things, and their response makes me feel like Scarlett O'Hara, because what they are basically saying is: Frankly, Sister, I don't give a damn."

It's that attitude, she says, that killed James. "They are saying maybe it has something to do with drugs, or that maybe he forgot to take his insulin. But I feel that I know why he did whatever he did. When a person of little education or job experience makes the kind of strides he had made, and then something knocks him down again, it can make him decide that it really isn't worth it."