- Associated Press - Saturday, July 4, 2015

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - This is what Justin Jackson’s clean slate looks like.

The 28-year-old Pittsburgh native rises before 5 a.m. on weekdays at the Community Corrections Center at 137 W. Second St., to where he was paroled after an August release from the State Correctional Institution at Somerset.

Jackson, who served a total of seven years related to felony firearms possession, gets dressed, eats, and slams a cup of coffee. He showers the night before because now more than ever, Jackson recognizes the value of time.

Jackson signs out and catches a bus to his job at Engineered Plastics Inc. in Lake City, where he works first shift, at $7.25 an hour, running one of five different machines.

“It hasn’t all been straight smooth for me. But my life is about a whole different mindset now,” Jackson said.



The challenge faced by Jackson and thousands of others in Erie County -building a productive life after time behind bars - is a focus of local law enforcement, social service agencies, faith-based groups and others working to combat crime’s root causes.

Erie Together, the region’s anti-poverty initiative, brought those groups together in July 2013 to forge what it calls a “countywide transitioning client re-entry strategy.”

The goal is to reduce recidivism, or the likelihood that ex-offenders will return to crime.

Jackson said violence and toxic influences were the status quo while he was growing up. “But once I got to prison, when it clicked and hit me, was seeing all the stabbings and the violence in prison and stuff of that nature that I finally realized I didn’t want any part of,” he said.

“I got my forklift (operator) license when I was in prison … that helped me get jobs,” Jackson said. “I decided to come to Erie because just because I’m trying to change don’t mean that those people and things I was into before in Pittsburgh are trying to change. I figured in order for me to stay positive, I would remove myself from the whole environment.”

Creating a framework

The goal of local officials is to create the Erie County Re-entry Services and Support Alliance within the next few years. ECRSSA would be “a one-stop shop” for those returning from incarceration that would help clients access jobs, education, housing, transportation and mentoring/counseling, among other services.

The plan is part of Unified Erie, a federal, state and local law enforcement effort focusing on re-entry, getting violent offenders off the streets, and crime prevention/education, including neighborhood revitalization.

Nearly 68 percent of prisoners nationwide are rearrested within three years of release, according to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data. However, the U.S. Department of Justice reported in 2014 that coordinated re-entry strategies can reduce recidivism by as much as 30 percent.

That was a key rationale behind the federal Second Chance Act, which became law in 2008 and makes grants available to support re-entry strategies.

“If we find ways to help offenders stabilize and make their way back into the community, it’s less likely that they will reoffend,” said Patricia Lightner, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole’s Erie district director, who is part of the ECRSSA discussions. “That benefits everybody in the long run.”

While various local entities have handled aspects of re-entry for decades, this is the first attempt at building a comprehensive local strategy involving multiple stakeholders.

“When we do things in silos, we’re not able to see through the silo what everyone else is doing,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Piccinini said. “That’s not the way to do things.”

Nationwide, 650,000 people each year re-enter society after incarceration, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In Erie County, that number is roughly 2,500 annually, said George Fickenworth, an assistant director at the Mercyhurst Civic Institute.

Further, local officials know there are thousands of other area residents with criminal backgrounds - some still under court supervision, some not - who struggle to secure jobs and other opportunities because of their pasts.

That number has been difficult to pinpoint, said Mary Bula, Erie Together’s coordinator and a United Way vice president.

“If they are not working, if they are not safe in their housing situation, if they are not moving forward in a positive way, what’s their alternative?” Bula said. “People have to live.”

‘Stackable credentials’

Rick Cornwell, site administrator at Pennsylvania CareerLink in Erie, said his agency is developing job training as part of the plan that focuses on improving workforce and computer skills, writing résumés, and “how to talk to co-workers and your employer” about criminal history.

“How do they overcome that box they have to check on the application, the one that’s going to ask about criminal background?” Cornwell said. “There’s a way to approach the subject with employers that emphasizes what you can do to help an employer, not what you’ve done wrong in your life.”

Local officials want to build something akin to the Lancaster County Re-entry Management Organization in south-central Pennsylvania, a group of more than 50 organizations that provides job training and certification, housing assistance, basic education, mentoring and other support to people with criminal records.

“We have no full-time employees. We have no physical office,” said Melanie Synder, the Lancaster County RMO’s executive director, which contracts with existing Lancaster County agencies to serve clients.

“We talk about ‘stackable credentials’ with our clients,” Snyder continued. “Having a criminal record can be held against you in ways. So we focus on helping them build positive credentials on the other side of that scale that can help them be successful.”

That’s what Jeremiah Wodarski is trying to do. Wodarski, 40, spent time in state prison for corruption of minors and charges related to a traffic accident.

“Getting in trouble and doing stupid (expletive) … I made things harder for me,” said Wodarski, of Erie, who received anger management and alcohol counseling after his crimes and now works at a local plastics company. “As long as I keep moving forward I’m good.”

‘Double strike’

Bula said there are plenty of details to work out regarding ECRSSA, including its structure and funding.

Fickenworth, of the Mercyhurst Civic Institute, is preparing a $10,000 grant application to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, money that would be used to “streamline our data collection and best identify the issues we have here,” he said.

The ECRSSA planning group, which meets monthly, is finishing a re-entry strategy and recommendations report.

The region’s faith-based community also is involved.

“We have committed Christians involved who find it in their mission to make a difference,” said the Rev. Charles Mock, pastor of Community Baptist Church.

Mock said he believes the plan should incorporate the national “Healing Communities” re-entry strategy, which encourages church congregations to be involved in the “restoration and healing” of anyone affected by crime.

“You can’t put a dollar value on will, compassion and mercy,” Mock said. “I’m excited about this, because there are varied perspectives involved.”

Officials said they are also seeking input from local people who have been to prison, and that their voices have been valuable.

“I’m a good person. But I just got caught up in something a long time ago, and this is still following me,” said Paula Beard, 35, an Erie resident who served a five-year sentence for assault and has talked with ECRSSA planners about her experiences.

Employed by a local bakery, Beard said she’s been rejected countless times for jobs. “My goal is to prove to society that I am not who they said I was (in court documents),” Beard said.

Ray Humphries, 46, can relate.

Originally from Pittsburgh, Humphries spent time in prison for theft and battled substance abuse. Now living in Erie, Humphries says he’s been clean for four years.

He is a member of the Blue Coats, a group of local men who monitor Erie’s schoolyards and attend other community events with the aim of keeping peace.

Humphries hopes his story can keep others out of prison.

“Being a black man, and a convict, you got, like, a double strike against you,” Humphries said. “That’s a message we’re trying to relay as Blue Coats. We tell kids not to make some of the choices that we made.

“I’m still being held accountable for stuff I did in 1986,” Humphries said. “Some of these kids don’t understand that concept.”

Taking a chance

Statistics underscore the importance of an effective re-entry strategy.

More than 90 percent of the nation’s roughly 2.2 million state prison inmates are released back to communities at some point, and about 5 million people in the U.S. are on probation or parole at any given time, according to the Council of State Governments.

Further, National Institute of Justice data puts unemployment rates for ex-offenders as high as 75 percent; mental illness and/or addiction rates are as much as four times higher among prisoners than in the general population; and a criminal record can cut an applicant’s chances of a job offer or callback by half.

Laurie Hill is office manager at BPS Staffing, 109 W. 18th St., the employment agency that put Jackson at Engineered Plastics. BPS has placed hundreds of men and women with criminal records in temporary jobs, Hill said, mostly at local plastics shops.

Hill said employers are often willing to hire those workers, especially those still under court supervision, because the jobs frequently pay minimum wage “and they often turn out to be really good workers. And let’s be honest - they have to show up for work, or they can get in trouble.”

Jackson started at Engineered Plastics on June 2 and is doing well, Hill said. “He hasn’t missed a day of work. I will always give somebody the chance to prove themselves,” Hill said.

Further, re-entry help is much less costly than incarceration, state statistics show.

Court-ordered supervision, which frequently includes re-entry programs, costs Pennsylvania less than $4,000 per individual, according to the state Board of Probation and Parole. By contrast, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ cost of incarceration in 2015, based on state budget data, is about $41,000 per inmate.

“I’m a strong believer that to help dysfunctional families and to help our kids and neighborhoods, our community needs to embrace re-entry,” said Paul Gambill, a community resource specialist with the U.S. Probation Office.

“There will be failures, and not everyone is going to make it,” Gambill continued. “But we shouldn’t throw everyone under the bus. We have to be willing to give that chance to people.”

Jackson attends an ex-offender support group weekly “to keep structure in my life.”

He plans to make the most of his clean slate.

“I dealt with my consequences after my wrong,” Jackson said. “If a person is coming home, and they’re taking the steps showing that they want to give back to the society, don’t tear them down. … I know that everybody doesn’t change, but there’s opportunities out here to change if people want them.”

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Online:

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Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com

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