Reentry programs became an area of focus for York College faculty and alumni
Pennsylvania corrections and parole experts look to reentry as a way to introduce inmates to becoming successful, contributing members of their communities.
When Kelly (Hassinger) Evans ’90 thinks of prison reform programs, a man from Dauphin County immediately comes to mind. For years, while she worked for the county probation and parole department, she watched him experience stints in and out of prison for various drug charges.
When he eventually landed in a state prison, he decided he was ready to change his life. Today, that man is a mentor at a halfway house in Harrisburg. He rewrote his story by taking advantage of programs that taught him career skills. Now, he’s helping other people do the same.
“Between 90 and 95% of incarcerated people are going to get out and return to society,” says Evans, who now serves as Deputy Secretary for Reentry for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. “We have to believe in second chances and that people have the ability to change.”
A focus on helping people
When she graduated from York College of Pennsylvania with her degree in Criminal Justice, Evans jumped head first into her career with Dauphin County Adult Probation and Parole. “I found this field to be fascinating,” she says. “I was able to help those less fortunate or those who made bad decisions turn their lives around and be successful. In this position, we are able to look at the barriers individuals who are reentering have faced for so many years and make real changes. We can make a difference in their lives.”
In her current position, she oversees the release process for inmates, with a role in every program from treatment to activities, religion, and education. She also works with reentry parole staff to see every aspect of life that may hinder someone from being successful, then provides assistance so that issues such as housing, job skills, and transportation don’t become barriers.
Many cities in the region are beautifying their neighborhoods and growing with luxury housing options. That provides fewer affordable options for those trying to turn their lives around, Evans says. It’s a particular concern in places like Harrisburg, where people attempting to return to familiar city neighborhoods can’t find places to live that fit their rent budget.
“I think we’ve made great strides when it comes to the stigma about hiring someone with a criminal record,” she says. “In the last three years, our statistics have been steady for employment. But, housing continues to be a concern. When you don’t have a safe, affordable place to go to at the end of the day, you lack that stability in life. That’s part of the bigger picture we need to address.”
Studying the impacts of reentry
Pete Leasure, Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Community Impact Research Fellow for the Arthur J. Glatfelter Institute for Public Policy at York College, has taken a particular interest in reentry programs. He has spent about five years studying collateral consequences of conviction, primarily those related to housing and employment. He has also studied the effectiveness of rights restoration mechanisms.
But, he says, the topic in general is understudied. “I think that It’s safe to say that criminal history has a clear impact on employment and housing outcomes, but research has shown that the level of that impact depends on the type of criminal history, one’s race/ethnicity, and one’s gender,” Leasure says. “It’s a complicated topic, and I really believe that the field could benefit from replication research [where studies are able to produce the same outcome in similar situations]. And unfortunately, there are not a lot of true replication studies on these topics yet. So, I think that we have a long way to go when it comes to understanding the impact of criminal history as well as the mechanisms that are best suited to help those with criminal history secure fundamental necessities such as housing and employment.”
Leasure focuses much of his research on Ohio, where he’s originally from. There, legislators have implemented Certificates of Relief, a rights restoration mechanism aimed at relieving some of the negative impacts someone with a criminal history might face in employment and housing. While research on the effectiveness of this particular mechanism has so far produced mixed results, Leasure says, it is important to recognize that more and more jurisdictions are actively pursuing policies that aim to reduce the negative impacts of criminal history. Therefore, Leasure says it is crucial to continue to evaluate each of these policies to ensure that reentering offenders are given the best chance for success.
Regarding the importance of students learning about reentry, Leasure stated, “I think it is critical for students to grasp the role of reentry in the criminal justice system. A lot of literature argues that failing to address collateral consequences of conviction can create a criminogenic cycle, not only for individuals, but for communities as well. If we can identify programs and policies that can effectively reduce the negative impacts of criminal history, then it will not only be a benefit for reentering offenders, but for society as well. So, it is critical that students understand the importance of reentry, because the students of today will be the researchers and policymakers of tomorrow.”
A ripple effect
When Evans helps someone reconnect with their family, secure a job, or sign the lease on their first apartment, she knows that person is getting a fighting chance at changing their life. And not just their own, she adds. Helping one person leave the prison system and start their life anew means they are impacting the other people in their life.
“Each person who walks out of here has a family,” she says. “They have children of their own, they have parents, they have siblings. They are loved by someone who wants to see them succeed. And I want that for them, too.”