Wolf, Shapiro tout program to help prisoners reenter society

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

HARRISBURG — State officials are launching the first statewide council to help former prison inmates navigate the challenges of finding housing, work, and health care as they adjust to life outside bars.

Gov. Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced Monday the creation of the Pennsylvania Reentry Council, which aims to stop the trend of inmates being freed from prison, committing new crimes, and heading back to jail. About two-thirds of convicts nationally end up reincarcerated at some point after being released, officials said. 

Pennsylvania already has 21 community reentry coalitions, officials said. Now, four state agencies – the Office of the Attorney General, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the Department of Corrections, and the Board of Probation and Parole – will coordinate a statewide effort to help former prisoners stay free and contribute to society.

The current system of law enforcement is broken, Shapiro said.

 “The approach over the last few decades has simply been to lock people up,” he said. “And the truth is, we do our fair share of locking people up.”

But, he said,  "we cannot arrest our way out of this crisis.”

The council plans to address five major challenges of reentry: access to housing, education, health care (including addiction and mental-health treatment), and essential documents such as driver’s licenses and social security cards, and barriers to employment, such as discrimination against ex-prisoners. They did not outline specific steps, goals or a timetable.  

The council hopes that addressing these five issues statewide will yield results similar to those of local reentry programs, such as those described by Melanie Snyder, executive director of the Lancaster County Reentry Management Organization. 

In Lancaster County in 2015-16,  for instance, 93 percent of those who completed the reentry coalition’s “intensive” program have not committed any new crimes, Snyder said.

“No single agency or program can possibly address all the needs that returning citizens have," Snyder said. "We must work together.”

The council met for the first of its quarterly meetings after the news conference.

Sarah Mearhoff is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents' Association.