Leaving the criminal justice system is not as simple as walking out the prison door. The first weeks are crucial and studies show that the majority of people who return to prison do so on either a parole or probation violation within the first one to three years of freedom.
“In Pennsylvania, what we are seeing is that people are just unable to get off of supervision,” said Dr. Kerry Richmond, chairperson of the Criminal Justice Department at Lycoming College.
“Individuals who successfully completed supervision actually had very low recidivism rates.”
Seven years ago, Lycoming County was faced with a difficult decision: Build a new prison, or find a way to decrease the rising inmate numbers. Struggling with rising costs and overcrowding at the jail, the county decided it was time to look for alternative options.
The county’s reentry process from prison to the community was evaluated.
After receiving a state grant in 2015, Richmond began two recidivism studies of the Lycoming County prison and probation systems.
After three years of data collection from the Lycoming County prison and probation systems, the two studies make it clear that while there are a multitude of resources available for returning offenders, successfully exiting the criminal justice system is rare.
While some would incur new offenses: violent crimes (3%) or drug charges (9%), over 40% were rearrested after a probation violation, and nearly 86% were rearrested due to parole violations.
Building a coalition
In 2015, the Lycoming County Reentry Coalition was founded. This group brought together local leaders, business owners and judicial system personnel to provide a unified front to help reintegrate ex-offenders into the community and encourage businesses and landlords to give them opportunities despite their criminal past.
It was no easy task. The reentry coalition skidded to a halt in 2016 after roughly six months of meetings. The full-time reentry coordinator chosen to lead the coalition resigned from her position within a year, and the group languished in limbo for over three years.
In early 2021, it was relaunched with GEO Reentry Services at its head.
Samantha Koch, the new reentry coordinator, works with roughly 40 inmates during their last month in prison. She ensures they know what resources are available to them and helps them with interview skills, resume building and housing assistance.
“They’ve broken some trust … I’ve heard them say how hard it is to gain that trust back. They feel defeated,” Koch said. “One of the things that we try to help them learn is to change their thinking. That negative self-talk that they have used … got them in trouble in the first place.”
Challenges of reentry
“Our system has been inundated from drug and alcohol addiction,” said Deputy Chief of Probation John Stahl, which has caused a massive strain on the county’s services.
An inmate in prison longer than 30 days will begin to lose access to services, such as medical assistance, housing assistance and so on, according to Stahl. It can often be more than three weeks after release that these services are reinstated.
“That’s a big challenge,” Stahl said, “making sure they have what they need for mental health and substance abuse.”
One of the biggest barriers to reentry is housing, according to Richmond.
“Once people are released, where do they go,” she asked, adding that landlords often are hesitant to rent to someone with a criminal record.
In addition, the study found that employment, mental health issues and substance abuse are other major barriers to reentry.
Breaking the cycle
Resources through Lycoming County range from the West Branch Drug and Alcohol Commission and GEO Reentry Services, to the American Rescue Workers’ Fresh Start Program and the Transitional Living Center.
But with so many resources, why is it so difficult for individuals to break free from the cycle of crime?
Having all the systems in the world won’t help if the person isn’t willing to change, said Cleveland Way, former director of the American Rescue Workers’ Men’s Shelter.
Way launched the ARW Fresh Start program two years ago. The nine-month, live-in program partners with its participants, helping them to develop good working habits, establish financial accountability and find a permanent residence.
“We are planting seeds,” Way said, stressing that shouldn’t be given up on.
“When they do want to change, there are not many people who are willing to walk alongside an individual to teach them to change,” he said.
As part of its three-phase process, the program partners with local businesses that provide job placement opportunities, which, according to Way, have seen a 100% success rate so far.
But, Way added that there are not enough long-term live-in programs in Lycoming County.
“It works,” he said. “But we need more supportive housing options.”
A community effort
Building community partnerships is essential, according to Way, adding that encouraging productive citizens helps the community as a whole.
As businesses and local leaders join the reinvigorated Reentry Coalition, the goal will be to not only provide resources for returnees but also to encourage businesses and landlords to partner with offenders and give them options for success.
“People are a little leery and nervous about these people coming out of prison, but that’s the stigma that we are trying to overcome,” said Ed McCoy, chief probation officer for Lycoming County. “These people are like me or you. They may have made a mistake. We all make mistakes. We’re just trying to get them back into society and never make that mistake again.”
A positive influence from the community is vital, according to Way, who added that the majority of individuals enter criminality at a young age.
“If all I see is negativity around me, that is going to be my role model,” Way said.