- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

RICHMOND — A clean-cut real estate appraiser with an upper-middle-class background, Keith DeBlasio seemed an unlikely candidate for prison when sent there in 1990.

He eventually split nearly 11 years between Virginia and federal prisons for credit card fraud and bank embezzlement — gaining a firsthand glimpse of life on the inside and, later, the challenges of re-establishing himself back in the real world.

“I noticed what was really lacking, one of the things being re-entry,” Mr. DeBlasio said.

A joint subcommittee studying prisoner re-entry yesterday tentatively approved a slate of measures easing that transition, including funding for a pilot program matching ex-offenders with mentors in Richmond, Norfolk, King George, Culpeper and the Greensville/Emporia area.

The committee will meet again in January to take formal votes because the group didn’t make a quorum.

They are expected to finalize several recommendations approved yesterday, including $10 million in budget amendments to provide mental health treatment for ex-offenders after release and legislation requiring state housing officials to help ex-offenders find affordable places to live.

Members also approved $300,000 over two years for the pilot program, slated to begin initial phases next month, said Jane Brown, a director of the Office of Community Partnerships, through the Department of Social Services.

The pilot program will last about two years. She said localities will receive as many as 50 prisoners randomly picked from state correctional facilities.

The localities will form re-entry councils and spend up to six months working with prisoners on housing, employment and financial strategies before their release, Miss Brown said.

Former inmates also will be given a mentor family — households selected to model good relationships and give emotional support to those lacking close relatives. Former inmates will check in with the council periodically for a year after release.

“We all want the same thing … for them to be employed and staying out of trouble,” Patricia Smith, executive director of Offender Aid and Restoration/Jefferson Area Community Corrections, told subcommittee members. “If they have nothing they can hold on to, they’re not going to be successful.”

Miss Smith’s group is one of many across the state helping former prisoners get back in society, but Miss Brown said the groups are too fragmented.

“What we hope to do in the pilot is help those groups work together,” she said. “It’s just about collaborating better.”

Once out, prisoners face barriers in obtaining even the most basic necessities, said Mr. DeBlasio, who is the legislative liaison for Virginia Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants.

He recalled one friend’s difficulty obtaining a Social Security card he needed to work.

Without a driver’s license, the man couldn’t be helped at Social Security offices.

“We had to wait for things in the mail because he couldn’t go inside,” Mr. DeBlasio said. “It was a good three weeks before we got his ID.”

There are about 36,000 prisoners in Virginia facilities, according to state data. About 11,500 of those will be released next year.

“Prison is a revolving door,” said state Sen. William C. Mims, a Loudoun County Republican who sits on the subcommittee. “There are strategies that break that cycle. That’s what we’re working on.”

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