Paving the path for ex-offenders

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By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

Rhiannon Edwards goes to work every day dreaming of a better life. A good job with a bright future. A nice place to live. She dreams of being a productive part of the community.

Edwards doesn’t yearn for these things for herself, but for some of Marion County’s hardened and most difficult individuals.

Since 2006, Edwards has been executive director of PACE (Public Advocates in Community Re-Entry), a nonprofit on Indianapolis’ Eastside that provides everyday, useful services for people with felony convictions to adjust to life outside of prison.

PACE, which started in the 1960s, annually serves 1,500 new clients and 2,000 returning ones. The work isn’t always easy.

“When organizations get someone with a felony that they can’t do anything with, they send them here. We’re like the drop-off center. The worst of the worst, bottom of the barrel, that’s what we get. If you don’t help him, he’ll do that again,” said PACE’s Edwards.

“So although we don’t like what he did, we have to try to give him the tools to be better. He may decide not to be better, but we have got to give him the tools.”

Re-entry programs that prepare ex-offenders to reclaim their places in society are integral pieces of the entire rehabilitation process.

The city of Indianapolis has had an Office of Ex-offender Re-entry since 2007. Headed by Brian Reeder, this city agency coordinates employment and support services through existing community organizations. Reeder, who has been on the job since September of last year, knows the importance of community-centered programming to support ex-offenders and prevent recidivism. Another key, he says, is transitional work opportunities and housing.

In addition to PACE, he points to two other programs — RecycleForce and Horizon House – both nonprofit organizations that provide readjustment services for ex-offenders.

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RecycleForce, a nonprofit, electronic-recycling company on the city’s Near Eastside, began in 2003 and hires ex-cons. Gregg Keesling, the president, says the program serves 338 with a staff of 12. Its focus is on transitional jobs and wrap-around services. The courts refer offenders to the program.

At Horizon House, a nonprofit homeless day center near Downtown, clients initially come in for a cup of coffee, to shower or get out of the heat. Under one roof, the center provides job-readiness training, housing and medical services through an onsite center run by Eskenazi Health.

Teresa Wessel, executive director for the past five years, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of ex-offenders coming through the center’s doors. Of the 2,000 unique individuals seeking Horizon House services so far this year, 62 percent were ex-felons. It is important to note they are self-reported, she said.

“We work hard on building trust and relationships, and now they’re willing to tell us. I don’t know so much that it’s an increase, people are just comfortable,” said Wessel.

The three organizations serve different populations. While the city has other re-entry programs, not all can take all types of offenders. A community center with a child daycare, for example, cannot allow a sex offender on the premises.

At current funding levels, however, these three nonprofits can serve only about a third of those in need in Marion County, and each has seen federal, state and city dollars decrease in the past several years.

In 2007, Horizon House received about 50 percent, or $650,000, of its budget from the federal government.

“Last year, our government funding was $99,000. We lost about half a million dollars,” said Wessel. Her organization has tried to fill it with help from donor support, special events and private foundations, but at the end of 2010, the organization reduced staff – from 25 to 15. Currently Wessel has three openings but has a hiring freeze.

For RecycleForce, less local and national foundation funding, not being awarded a recent federal contract and a drop in commodity prices for the material the organization resells, have all contributed to its reduced revenues.

Keesling noted that when Mayor Greg Ballard started the Office of Re-entry, there was a $400 million budget for public safety, and when Ballard launched the Community Crime Prevention Grant Program, it had a $5 million budget.

The crime prevention program is funded from public resources allocated annually by the Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council and is administered by The Indianapolis Foundation, an affiliate of the Central Indiana Community Foundation.

“Since that time, crime prevention has gone from $5 to $2 million, and public safety’s gone from $400 up to $620 million. So the public has agreed to increase public safety by $200 million and reduce crime prevention by $3 million. We need parity and understanding,” said Keesling.

PACE has state and county contracts to provide services for Marion County Community Corrections, including the Duvall Residential Center for work release sentences, re-entry drug court and drug treatment court. Both PACE and Horizon House are United Way agencies, which has allowed a portion of their funding to remain stable.

In addition to dealing with funding cuts, re-entry agencies will likely be taxed even further after recent legislation passed by the Indiana General Assembly. In 2013, Indiana made significant changes to its criminal code for the first time in more than 30 years.

Under House Enrolled Act 1006, low-level offenders will no longer be sent to state prisons. Instead, they will be kept in local jurisdictions to serve their sentences. The change also gives judges more discretion to allow time to be served in community-based correction programs.

In part, the revisions were designed to ease overcrowding in the state prison system and control burgeoning state incarceration budgets.

With fewer individuals going to corrections and more serving their sentences in communities, the number of current and ex-offenders needing services in Marion Country is expected to double, to about 12,000.

In the 2015 legislative session, Indiana passed technical corrections to the 2013 House bill, and these three agencies are hopeful the fixes might enable them to expand. Also called the Criminal Justice Funding Law, the legislation will provide $80 million for drug treatment and mental health programs and is designed to treat the underlying causes of crime and help nonviolent offenders not continue criminal behaviors.

Additionally, the bill provides funding to local communities to serve the expected influx of low-level offenders, many with drug addictions and mental illnesses, who will now serve their time in the community instead of prison. The emphasis is on treatment and supervision rather than incarceration. Community corrections will receive $30 million in the first year, and $50 million in the second.

All three nonprofits are part of the Marion County Re-entry Coalition (MCRC), which works with many other groups from community corrections to judges to the prosecutor’s office.

Wessel, who came to the nonprofit sector after nearly 26 years in the for-profit world, said she is amazed and impressed with the amount of collaboration that happens in Indianapolis.

“We try to be careful that there is no duplication. Our resources are so scarce, there isn’t room for duplication,” she said.

When recidivism was high in 2007, city and state officials took notice and the next year, began a collaboration between the Annie E. Casey Foundation and work being done with agencies in the city, the mayor’s and governor’s offices. In 2012, the group transitioned to the Marion County Re-entry Coalition.

By 2013, the City-County Council convened a Re-Entry Study Commission to look at re-entry’s effect on the community. With 26 recommendations in hand, they named MCRC responsible to move the agenda.

One way it plans to do that is to make re-entry services more accessible. The Office of Re-Entry will manage six resource centers, modeled in part on Horizon House’s efforts to locate services in one place. The six locations have not been finalized, but strong consideration is being given to high-crime zip code areas.

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More than half of the prisoners released in Marion County wind up back behind bars within three years, according to a 2013 report commissioned by the City-County Council. The biggest predictor of whether they will return to crime? Employment. And sometimes not even that is enough.

“Everybody’s going to say, you need an education, you need to change your criminogenic thinking. You need housing, you need all this, all true. But the thing you want is the job,” said Keesling.

Wessel thinks there are other factors.

“It’s still important to emphasize that (a person) doesn’t go from incarceration to release to instantly getting a job.

If you got mental health or medical issues, you’re not going to be successful at keeping a job, and most definitely maintaining a job,” she said.

To support the re-entry process, Horizon House has a computer lab and clients have generic IDs. Volunteers from area businesses help prepare ex-offenders for job interviews with role-playing situations, and also help the ex-offender account for a gap in work history. The onsite computer lab has a separate phone number, providing an ex-offender with a phone number to give to potential employers and then a place to access messages. The center also has secured storage, so that anyone who has a job or is going to a job interview can leave his or her belongings.

“The last thing you want to do at a job interview is to roll in your suitcase or have a plastic bag with you. We are trying to make sure that there’s no negative first impression that would cause someone to be discriminated against directly or indirectly because someone else is making a judgment call,” said Wessel.

The six resource centers, much like Horizon House, will be a one-stop places to access services, said Wessel. Each center must have a job-readiness training program, and clients must have access to employment, health and education services.

If these aren’t available onsite, the center must have a signed letter of agreement with other agencies to provide those services. There must be a staff member who is OWDS certified (offender workshop development specialist) or project management gained through United Way, a level of certificated specialists that can help offenders get a job and be reinstated into the community.

“So we are trying to make sure that folks are directed to the right service center or resource center that they’re eligible for and that they’re actually going to access services and not be told to go to three other places. In the past with that type of soft handoff, no one was catching them on the other end. They could have looked in the phone book. The focus is really on providing the services on site,” said Wessel.

As the re-entry programs scramble to provide more and more services, the question remains: Are they making a difference?

PACE’s Edwards said that working with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and its Making Connections program helped her organization develop data-collecting software and ensure that programming is results-focused.

“I think the organizations that were under the Making Connections model are better at collecting outcomes. The Annie E. Casey Foundation didn’t want to know how many people attended a workshop, they wanted to know who got benefits, who had a job, who still was in a job. They wanted employment numbers. They wanted to know how many people in this zip code had a job.”

Keesling said defined metrics are key.

“All of us need to agree on the metrics. This should be the top issue. We wouldn’t allow this in any other part of government or business,” he said.

Keesling said there are 135,000 felons now living in Marion County, according to the National Employment Law Project. That is 20 percent of the population who have a felony and that has an impact on their job prospects.

For Edwards, the biggest change she seen since she started at PACE nearly a decade ago is from the community and the respect they have for the work that re-entry programs do.

“When I first got here, I could just see the look on people’s faces,” she said.

Fighting the stigma of their clients is something they all still do.

“You know when something bad happens and they say on the news, ‘He had been in prison five times before.’ We know, ‘Oh, gosh, we have to fight that.’ Even though Johnny was not our client, Johnny had been to prison before and all our clients have been to prison. So that’s our biggest obstacle,” she said.

Wessel said that it’s most important to educate the community.

“You know, raise the reality, educate people on the issue,” she said.

Photos courtesy of Horizon House and RecycleForce.

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