Can a fake court help high-risk Pennsylvania parolees?

Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper congratulates Tanya Curtis and Tyrell Bryant (right) graduates of the Re-entry Program that takes place on the fifth-floor courtroom of the Criminal Justice Center.

Tanya Curtis’ path to re-entry from prison last year looked suspiciously like a dead-end road.

She was broke, for one thing. She didn’t have a high school diploma or GED. She had a history of addiction, drug dealing, petty crime. And she was placed in one of the most intensive supervision programs Pennsylvania’s Board of Probation and Parole has for medium- and high-risk offenders with substance-abuse issues.

That initiative is called the Re-entry Program, but it’s often referred to as “Philadelphia re-entry court.” It takes place in a fifth-floor courtroom of the Criminal Justice Center, Sheila Woods-Skipper presiding. But technically, it’s not a court at all.

Woods-Skipper, president judge of Common Pleas Court, cannot sentence the participants, who’ve already served their terms. Instead she, along with state parole board member Linda Rosenberg, encourages them, helps them troubleshoot obstacles, offers resources, and dishes out praise.

“There is the perception that there is judicial oversight,” Woods-Skipper said. In fact, “my role is to support and encourage the individuals to participate in the plan that has been developed.”

It’s considered a worthwhile bit of showmanship if it can help one of the state’s most difficult and high-risk parole populations. Just a year after getting out of prison, one in five people in the program is arrested again. Three years out, nearly half have been re-arrested.

Officials still see the program, one of four around the state, as a success — but this is the hard work at the deep end of re-entry, a slog that produces incremental progress, not miracles.

“Every time you go back to meet with the group, 10 people were gone, locked up, caught a charge,” it seemed to Curtis. “If you don’t say to yourself: ‘I’m ready to stop, I’m ready to change,’ nothing will change.”

Curtis, 39, was ready.

She was one of two participants who graduated last week from the roughly yearlong program. Since it began in 2014, 63 people have entered the program. Of those, 16 have failed, and 21 have graduated.

The program, a requirement of parole for selected participants, puts parolees under close supervision and allows them to advance gradually to less restrictive conditions. They meet frequently with a parole agent and submit to regular drug tests. And, once a month, they convene in the courtroom to talk over their progress with a team that also includes staff from the District Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the Defender Association.

Camera icon MARGO REED
President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper (right) confers with Linda Rosenberg, board member of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. (MARGO REED / Staff Photographer)

One by one, the participants are called up to discuss their progress — jobs landed and lost, sick children in and out of the hospital, drug relapses. Over and over, Rosenberg and Woods-Skipper urge the parolees to keep up their efforts, stay positive. One man has been missing his appointments and says he’s overwhelmed. Woods-Skipper urges him: “Don’t absent yourself form this process, but engage. Reach out. We have a whole team working for you.”

Though it’s not a court, “it’s based on a problem-solving court model,” said Richard Podguski, director of offender re-entry coordination for the Board of Probation and Parole.

The result is lower recidivism: 19 percent in the first year out of prison, compared with 28 percent for comparable parolees. But that rate rises to 47 percent after three years, compared with 49 percent for other parolees.

Several people failed to show up at court for the session. One man arrived only after the meeting had ended, sweating and breathing hard. “It’s over?” he asked Joshua Andreas, the parole officer for the program. “I ran here. I had no bus fare, so I had to panhandle for $2.50.”

To address slip-ups like that one, the program provides a range of consequences. Those who miss a meeting or fail a drug test face sanctions such as community service, writing assignments, GPS monitoring, inpatient treatment, or return to prison.

But they also can access support: treatment or help with housing, education, and employment opportunities.

Curtis looked at the program as the help she needed to fulfill the goals she’d set while in prison.

She’d grown up in North Philadelphia, sometimes in her mother’s house — her father was killed when she was 3 — and other times in foster care. She dropped out of school, sold drugs for a while, and then found work as a janitor. She used whatever drugs were available. “I didn’t think anything would ever change me,” she said.

Then, she got sentenced — 2½ to five years — for gun possession. It gave her time to think and to access treatment in the form of a therapeutic community, an intensive program that lasted four months. It was the first time she really contemplated what she was doing with her life, she said. She learned coping skills. She figured out what was driving her addiction.

When she was paroled, about 18 months ago, she was assigned to the Re-entry Program. It helped her with housing and told her about educational opportunities. It worked with her after she lost her job at a cheesesteak factory for fooling around with some of the equipment. And it even gave her a tip on a new job: It brought in a speaker from UpLift Solutions, which provides ex-offenders with six weeks of training and, at the end of it, a job at ShopRite. A few days after Curtis graduated, she landed a spot in the UpLift program.

She said she actually looked forward to the court dates.

“I was going to court to hear something good about myself, nothing bad,” she said. “I felt good about myself for once.”