‘This is about using our budget dollars wisely’: Pa. Corrections Dept. establishes new guidelines for former inmates seeking help

Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, right, discusses results of an internal review of parole cases that involved recent homicides or attempted homicides, as Deputy Secretary of Reentry Kelly Evans, left, and Chief Counsel Theron Perez, center, listen during a press conference in Mechanicsburg on Wednesday, August 28, 2019.

As it tries to plug a $140 million budget hole, the state Department of Corrections has started screening inmates who want help securing housing, employment, and other support services after they’re released from prison.

The new policy, announced in a memo to agency staff and contractors in mid-October, is part of an ongoing effort to rein in spending on reentry services — the wide array of programs designed to deter recidivism and help former inmates get back on their feet in their communities.

The department spent $18 million on those services in the 2018-19 fiscal year that ended on June 30. It hopes to shave that figure down this year by $2 million — an 11 percent decrease.

The agency’s total budget for the current fiscal year is $2.1 billion.

“This is about using our budget dollars wisely,” Kelly Evans, the deputy secretary for the department’s Office of Reentry, told the Capital-Star.

The Oct. 16 memo outlines new eligibility criteria for people seeking housing, workforce development, family counseling, and mentoring services.

They represent the first formal guidelines the department has adopted for its reentry programs, Evans said. The goal is to help staff target inmates who have a “moderate to high risk” of reoffending after they’re released.

Corrections officials say they hope the new policy will bring a degree of order that was previously lacking in the agency’s reentry programs, which inmates can access after receiving referrals from a prison staff member or parole agent.

But at least one attorney who works with incarcerated people worries about the impact the changes will have on recidivism rates.

‘The big picture’

Until Oct. 16, the department had no formal guidelines for connecting inmates to services outside of prison, Evans said. Prison counselors and social workers could refer inmates to programs. Parole agents who worked outside the prisons could issue referrals, too.

“Anyone could refer anyone,” Evans said. But “there were no guidelines” for the staff making referrals or for the inmates receiving them.

The new criteria rely in part on an inmate’s score on risk assessments — tools that evaluate criminal history, employment history, family relationships, and other factors to determine a person’s likelihood of committing new crimes after release.

Such tools are widely used in Pennsylvania and across the country, often to determine how closely inmates will be monitored when they leave prison and go on parole.

Now, inmates’ scores will also determine whether or not they can qualify for family counseling, mentoring, and employment support services through the Department of Corrections after their release.

The new guidelines also require people released from prison to secure a source of income — either from a part-time job or a disability benefit — before they’re eligible for community-based housing assistance.

The Capital-Star reported in August that the Department of Corrections had suspended referrals for certain reentry programs while it reviewed contracts with the service providers who work for the department as third-party vendors.

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

The department maintains dozens of contracts with those vendors, some worth millions of dollars. It pays them for services they render to former inmates, such as family counseling sessions or professional development training.

An agency spokeswoman could not provide an estimate of how many reentrants would be eligible for programs based on the new requirements.

But the department does intend to save money by making fewer referrals to these programs, Deputy Secretary George Little said.

It also hopes to make wiser choices about how it’s spending its reentry budget, and will soon begin reviewing programs to determine which ones are the most successful, Little said.

Corrections officials are still finalizing the performance criteria they’ll use in those evaluations, and how they’ll amend contracts with the vendors who show lackluster results.

“We really want to focus on the programs that work,” Little said. “So I think, inevitably, there may be a smaller number of providers who do business in the long haul.”

Evans expects to conclude the review by the end of the year.

Angus Love, a Philadelphia attorney who defends the civil rights of incarcerated people, said the department picked the wrong place to cut spending.

“You have to look at the big picture — we want to stop recidivism,” Love said. “To save money on the front end, you’ll end up losing money on the back end when people [commit new crimes.]”

Others were cautiously optimistic about the new strategy.

Kirstin Cornnell, director of social services for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a Philadelphia-based legal aid organization, said she’s “encouraged” that the department will take a more targeted approach to helping reentrants.

She’s also eager to know how the department will evaluate the success of different reentry programs.

“I’m most anxious to know what they want us to be reporting and measuring,” Cornnell said. “This is a good direction but there’s still more to be sorted out.”