Corrections officials suspend referrals, review contracts as they prepare to rein in spending on reentry services

Executive Deputy Secretary for Community Corrections and Reentry George Little, center, joined Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, left, during a press conference in Mechanicsburg on Wednesday, August 28, 2019.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has temporarily frozen new spending on some services for recently released inmates and may cut expenditures in certain areas pending the outcome of an internal review, an official confirmed to the Capital-Star on Friday.

Private vendors who provide formerly incarcerated people with family counseling, mentoring services, and housing assistance were notified on Thursday that they will not receive any new referrals from the Department of Corrections for the next 60 to 90 days, according to George Little, executive deputy secretary for Community Corrections and Reentry.

The suspension won’t affect anyone currently receiving those services, Little said. But it does mean that new reentrants will not be able to access them unless they’re connected through a local agency.

It also means that vendors — many of them small, community-based nonprofits and aid organizations — will have to go two to three months without any new business in those areas.

At the same time, the Department of Corrections will review contracts and reassess its spending across all of its 11 reentrant service areas, which include sex offender services, alcohol and drug treatment, and workforce development.

The temporary suspension of some service referrals is expected to save the department $2 million to $4 million, Little said.

Some of that money may be reallocated based on the outcome of the Corrections department’s program review, or be paid out in a few months when individuals waiting for referrals can obtain them, he said.

“The [goal] is to come out of this with a better, more effective and efficient set of services that are going to help reentrants succeed,” Little said. “That’s the bottom line.”

The contract review may lead to budget cuts, Little said, or to program changes that would allow reentrants to enroll in services administered by other state agencies. But Little stressed that the review “is not about cutting overall funding. It’s about being smart with the money we spend and getting best outcome for reentrants.”

The announcement comes amid a flurry of cost-saving actions in the Corrections department, which faces a $140 million shortfall in its $2.1 billion budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced plans Thursday to close a state prison in Luzerne County, which currently holds 1,100 inmates and employs 400 corrections officers and administrative employees.

It also follows the publication of a comprehensive internal review of Pennsylvania’s parole system, which Wetzel ordered in July after five Pennsylvania parolees were implicated in six homicides across the state.

The review did not identify any missteps in the parole process, but did recommend a slew of actions to improve communication among the agencies that supervise Pennsylvania’s 45,000 parolees, who are all considered reentrants.

Spending on reentry programs, which are designed to help inmates prepare for their release from prison, has ballooned in recent years, Little said, as Pennsylvania’s prison populations have fallen.

While recidivism rates among Pennsylvania’s former inmates have trended downward over the same time period, the department has not closely monitored which programs offer the most promising outcomes to reentrants and taxpayers, he said.

“We’ve seen this explosive growth in reentry services… but bigger isn’t necessarily better,” Little said. “We want to make sure we are spending funds wisely.”

The department began reviewing its vendor contracts a month ago to see which ones correlate with reentrant success. Little said that Corrections staff compared program rosters with rearrest and drug test records — a process they plan to automate in the future.

The findings of that review may lead the department to reassess certain vendor contracts, some of which are worth millions. Vendors receive reimbursements for services they render to reentrants.

Expenditures in three service areas in particular have shown rapid growth in recent years, Little said: housing assistance, which can include rent support; family reunification, which helps reentrants prepare to live with children, partners, and other relatives; and mentoring.

The housing assistance category often accounts for the single biggest share of the department’s service referrals, Little said. And while stable housing is shown to lower a reentrant’s risk of committing new crimes, family reunification and mentoring programs have not proven equally critical, Little said.

Little acknowledged that the suspension may affect some of the vendors who rely on reimbursements to pay their staff and operating expenses. He said that some have already expressed concerns over how they will weather a two- to three-month period with fewer referrals and thinner cash streams.

“They have staff and resources built up to support these programs, so some of them have the capacity to manage through 60 to 90 days,” Little said. “We also recognize that some of the vendors don’t have that capacity… they have staff, payroll, and commitments to make. We’ve been in the process of communicating with them and will continue to do so to help them remain viable.”

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