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Ex-convict savors freedom, seeks a job in unfamiliar world of 'society'

Under the fluorescent lights of a drab office in Compton, Robert Hill huddled with his vocational counselor.

"The money is getting low now," Rene Sanders reminded him, leaning back in his rolling chair. "So what's your next move?"

Hill, 41, exhaled. They began to run through his immediate goals: Get his driver's license and get a job — both for the first time in his life. Start working toward a real career, steering kids away from mistakes like his own.

Sanders urged him to take one thing at a time. He told Hill to come up with a realistic schedule to balance a job against the volunteer gig he loved.

"Your passion is to help children. To give back. You're well on your way with that," Sanders said. "But it's going to take time. Society is going to have to build trust with you."

Hill nodded. Sanders had told him this before. But he still wanted to cram decades into days.

::

The last time Hill was a free man, he wasn't yet a man.

He was 16 when he shot a man dead, 17 when he was sentenced. For nearly a quarter of a century, he was an inmate at a string of state facilities. Then, in June, he was out.

He talked about "society" — the world outside of prison — like a dazzling and unfamiliar country. He was unnerved by the rudeness of the people on the Metro, how they would crowd and cough carelessly around him. Phones had become pocket computers. A friend took him to Applebee's and he marveled at dining with a fork and a knife.

Even the food he grew up on jarred his stomach — the plates piled high with ribs, greens, cornbread and cake — when his mother and sisters welcomed him home to Lancaster. It was a home he had never lived in. Nieces and nephews he had never met.

Inside prison, "you lay on those bunks and think, I'm going to do this, that and the other," he reflected. But when you're out, "it's a whole different ballgame."

His mother, Darther Hill, urges him to take it a day at a time. "But he wants to move fast," she said. "Find him a job."

Hill started filling out an application at FedEx but lost his nerve when he saw a question about his criminal history. He had worked in prison as an educational clerk, helping teach English to fellow inmates, but said he hadn't gotten a reference from prison.

When he sought a temporary job at some Vernon warehouses, Hill was petrified, wondering what was running through his interviewer's head. Finally the man asked: Can you do this job?

Hill said yes. The work was weighing and tossing out chicken scraps — nothing he wanted to do for the rest of his life. But when it was over, he was rewarded with the first paycheck he had ever gotten.

"It's a feeling I can't even explain, man," Hill said. He put the check into his bank account, unsure when the next might come.

::

Politicians and activists have long grappled with how to improve the chances of men and women like Hill as they reestablish their lives on the outside. An Urban Institute study that tracked former offenders in four states indicated that only about half found work in their first year out, while nearly a quarter were incarcerated again.

In Los Angeles, activists are prodding lawmakers to bar employers from asking about criminal records at the beginning of the hiring process, delaying the question until an offer is made. Similar rules were imposed for California government agencies last year and have been rolled out in dozens of other cities, including Philadelphia and San Francisco. Advocates hail the proposal as a way to ensure that former convicts have a chance to make their case.

"It's not just shutting the door on the person who is starting their life anew," said Zach Hoover, executive director of L.A. Voice, an interfaith community group. If an employer has a chance to get to know a candidate, he or she might be willing to look beyond a criminal conviction, he argued.

But others question whether employers will act any differently once they finally learn that someone has a criminal past, or if the proposal might have negative side effects.

"If employers aren't able to check criminal background records easily, they'll use things that correlate with it — exclude young black male or young Latino male applicants who they consider to have criminal records, even if they don't," said Michael Stoll, a professor of public policy at UCLA.

Again and again, Hill said, he has written and torn up a "letter of explanation" to employers, loath to minimize his crime but not wanting to scare people away.

But he says he doesn't begrudge an employer who looks askance at his criminal conviction. "That's a righteous concern," he said. "If I was an employer, I'd ask the same questions."

::

Hill says he started selling drugs when a stranger offered him $20 to make the handoff on a South Los Angeles street. He was barely a teenager.

The money turned his head, Hill said. He went from twenties to hundreds to a thousand a pop. He stopped heeding his parents, ran away from home. He bought a gun to protect himself, his money and his cocaine.

But the crime that changed his life began with a much more ordinary teenage mistake: He crashed a car into a telephone pole.

Hill later told a police detective that he had borrowed the car, then struggled to pay the money its owner insisted upon. He said the man told him to pay up or his family would be killed. So Hill decided to shoot first, grabbing a gun he had stashed in a park before riding back on his bicycle and firing six times.

He was sentenced to 15 years to life for second-degree murder.

Hill makes no excuses for his crime. "I took somebody's life," he said simply and gravely. "I didn't respect anything. I didn't respect life."

Change came to him slowly, he said, spurred on by the death of his father, anger management programs, his faith. He tried writing to the mother of the man he killed, but never heard back.

Last January, he asked the parole board for another chance. The board had turned him down before, unconvinced he had fully reckoned with his crime.

This time, the panel wished him luck. "But keep in mind, you owe.... So give it back," deputy commissioner Tim O'Hara told him.

"Absolutely," Hill replied. "Absolutely. I will."

::

Hill has two resumes. One bills him as a "highly motivated worker" who "enjoys the challenge of physical work," who has a high school diploma and a forklift certification, who has stocked shelves, mowed and edged lawns, caulked cracks and holes.

The other describes him as a "caring, spiritual" person who is "passionate about educating, supporting and providing guidance to at-risk youth," has earned ministerial certificates, and has devoted years to programs with names such as We CARE and Changing Within — programs behind bars.

Every Monday, Hill helps foster discussions among teens grappling with addiction and other troubles at another program run by Shields for Families, the nonprofit where he gets help from Sanders.

When Hill was recommended as a volunteer, program manager Karmen Foster had some doubts. He was a black man in a largely Latino program. He had a commanding way about him, and Foster worried about how kids who bristled at authority would react.

Yet Hill has a kind of calm gravity that drew them in, Foster said. He doesn't lecture the kids about his past, Foster said. Hill says he rarely brings it up, worried that he could accidentally make it seem glamorous. Instead, he asks about what's happening in their lives.

"A lot of the time, adults don't really work well with teens because they have forgotten their own teen years," Foster said. "But that was a pivotal moment in his life.... He knows exactly what they're going through and maybe the reasons why they are the way that they are."

Hill says he has no temptation to repeat his old mistakes. He won't even jaywalk. "I've covered too much ground to jump off the cliff now," he said. "I owe everybody. I owe my family. I owe my God. I owe myself."

He still revels in his freedom. At wandering through the arcade at Redondo Beach. At hugging his mother in Lancaster. At a green, easy afternoon of Shakespeare in Griffith Park. But being free is also a gauntlet thrown down.

It's like being told, "You got kicked out of the world. I'm putting you back in it," Hill said. "What are you going to do?"

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesEmily

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