Novel program connects felons with bank, college, treatment

AP News
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Posted: Jun 09, 2015 4:59 PM

A federal court system in Pennsylvania is entering into an unusual partnership: It's teaming with a bank, a community college and a health care system to help recently released convicts get back on their feet — and avoid further brushes with the law.

Qualifying ex-inmates will be able to get a loan, an education and drug-and-alcohol treatment under a novel program that officials hope will reduce the number of felons who wind up back in prison.

Judge Thomas Vanaskie of Scranton, who sits on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, told The Associated Press on Tuesday he hopes the program will become a model for the rest of the nation.

"Our goal is to provide a solid footing for those who have been separated from the community for a while," he said.

The initiative in the 33-county Middle District of Pennsylvania reflects a broader effort by judges nationwide to reduce recidivism through intensive court-supervised reentry programs.

What makes the Pennsylvania program a rarity is that several private institutions are involved — including a bank.

ESSA Bank & Trust, a Stroudsburg-based community bank with branches in five eastern Pennsylvania counties, has agreed to offer money-management classes and loans of up to $15,000 to be used for housing, transportation or education, according to an agreement obtained by the AP.

The loans could be a key part of the program, as felons typically have trouble establishing credit or borrowing money. Without means to buy a car or access to public transportation, they often can't get to work.

"Transportation is a huge issue," Gary Olson, ESSA's president and chief executive, said Tuesday. "If we can get them to a job, they stand a much better chance of supporting themselves in the community."

Drug treatment is another prong. Pyramid Healthcare Inc. of Altoona, which runs a network of substance abuse and mental health treatment centers in three states, will assess each inmate and offer treatment and counseling to those needing it, the agreement said.

And Northampton Community College will offer a range of education services, including high school equivalency classes, job training and degree programs. The school said it will work closely with the former inmates to make sure they're on tracks that will land them jobs.

"It's part of our mission: to serve those in need, and to provide opportunities — whether it's their first opportunity, second or third or fourth," said Matt Connell, a dean at the college. "They deserve a chance to make their lives better and make the communities they live in better."

The voluntary program will target ex-inmates seen as more likely to re-offend, include younger people, those with drug problems and felons who served long sentences. Sex offenders and violent criminals will be ineligible.

The court's agreement with the bank, college and health system takes effect on Thursday.

"Hopefully this will bring a continuum of hope to those in need of a second chance in life," said Albert Murray Jr., a lawyer who helped launch the partnership.

The initiative expands on a 6-year-old Middle District program called CARE, or Court-Assisted Re-Entry, in which a federal judge, prosecutor, probation official and public defender meet regularly with participating ex-inmates in an effort to help them set and meet goals, transition back into the community and avoid committing more crimes.

Early results are promising. A study by the University of Scranton found a lower recidivism rate for CARE program graduates than for the ex-inmate population as a whole.

Vanaskie, the appeals judge, said the agreement with the bank, college and health system will give the team more tools.

"We recognized we had some needs we could not meet," he said.