York coalition focused on reducing recidivism by helping ex-inmates

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

Joyce Johnson beamed proudly as her son posed for photos with York County officials including the district attorney, president county commissioner and president common pleas judge.

"I don't get scared when the phone rings anymore," she told The York Dispatch after a news conference Tuesday, April 24, to introduce the York County Reentry Coalition.

York County chief deputy prosecutor and coalition co-chair Tim Barker speaks during the news conference kickoff for the York County Reentry Coalition at the York County Administrative Center in York City, Tuesday, April 24, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Her son, Eric Johnson, 36, of Hanover, is the type of success story the coalition is working to make the norm in York County.

He's been locked up more than 30 times by his own count — arrests stemming from what he described as his 22-year battle with substance abuse. Most of his incarcerations were in county prisons, including in York and Adams counties; he most recently did a seven-year stint in state prison.

He said he could not have become a productive member of the Hanover community without the support of his parents, who gave him a place to live and drove him to various appointments.

Eric Johnson said he's been free for three years, sober for six years and is halfway to getting his bachelor's degree. He's now a substance-abuse counselor at Open Arms Recovery Center, volunteers his time helping others and serves as a member of the coalition's advisory board.

Gainfully employed and the father of a college-bound son, he said he's worked hard to find his place in the community.

A rocky road: That's a difficult prospect for many people re-entering society from prison, according to officials with the York County Reentry Coalition — and it can be just as hard on the families supporting them.

"I've accomplished more than I ever dreamed, and that's a fact," Eric Johnson said. But he stressed that his success is tied to his family support system.

"It's hard to strive for greatness when you're cold, wet and hungry," he said, with little to show for your efforts.

Services do exist to help society's "re-entrants," but they're fragmented and not always easy to find, officials said.

And that's why it's the goal of the York County Reentry Coalition to help people being released from prison succeed by connecting them with job training, employment, educational programs, housing, transportation and other services.

The coalition was created about 18 months ago, according to York County chief deputy prosecutor Tim Barker, who co-chairs the coalition with Cristie DeWitt, administrator of Pennsylvania CareerLink in York County.

County officials and members of the coalition discussed its purpose during a news conference Tuesday. Speakers included Barker, Eric Johnson, President Commissioner Susan Byrnes, President Common Pleas Judge Joseph Adams and District Attorney Dave Sunday.

The news conference coincided with National Reentry Week, which this year is April 23 to 27. April has been designated Second Chance Month by President Donald Trump.

About 11K clients: Adams said Pennsylvania currently has the largest population of people on state parole of any state. The Office of York County Adult Probation supervises nearly 11,000 people on probation and parole, according to the president judge.

He said the Criminal Justice Advisory Board of York County in 2013 identified "coordinated planning for re-entry" as a top priority. It eventually was able to secure funding and in 2016 invited the community to participate in the planning process, according to Adams.

About 170 people took part, the president judge said — both community volunteers and "criminal justice partners" — and that planning process led to the creation of the coalition.

Barker said national statistics show that of those released from prisons, half are arrested again within a year of release; two-thirds are arrested within three years of release; and that most of those people are back to their original drug usage within 90 days of release.

'Staggering' costs: The "human costs" and financial costs to individuals and to taxpayers are staggering, according to Barker.

He said 40 percent — or $85 million — of York County's projected 2016 budget was allocated for its criminal justice system.

"This figure does not include all of the collateral costs of crime that impact our family courts, human services departments and numerous other agencies," Barker said.

And that's why it's so important for communities to connect former inmates with the services they need to succeed, he said, adding the coalition is "a true public and private partnership."

Helping re-entrants will lower recidivism rates, Barker said, which in turn should reduce the number of people who become crime victims, make the community safer and stimulate economic growth.

York County is working with the University of Pennsylvania to collect and calculate data to ensure York County's numbers back up that theory, he said; the county and the university also are jointly creating a web-based resource guide for re-entrants and their families.

A parent's frustration: Nancy Stone, who with her husband owns and runs Covenant Insurance in Dover, spoke about the struggles she has as the mother of a young man who's been in and out of York County Prison.

"It was the most frustrating and difficult journey I have ever taken," she said, meaning navigating the legal system, finding services for her son and dealing with the mental-health system. Stone recounted the hours she spent driving him to meetings and appointments, calling it mind-boggling.

She likened it to trying to put together a puzzle without being able to see individual pieces.

"It just about destroyed me," Stone said — until a friend invited her to attend a York County Reentry Coalition meeting.

"I started to see the pieces of the puzzle at that point," she said, and she joined the coalition as a volunteer. "I really think we're onto something good here."

DA Dave Sunday described Tuesday's news conference as a call to action for the community to help those trying to rejoin society after repaying their debt.

"Be part of the answer. Be part of the solution," he urged.

Second Chance job fair: Those solutions include helping re-entrants find solid jobs.

The coalition is sponsoring a Second Chance job fair from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, June 14, at PA CareerLink York County, 841 Vogelsong Road. That's along the 6N bus route, according to a job fair flyer.

The job fair is specifically for people with criminal backgrounds. Those planning to attend should bring their resumes, dress professionally and expect on-the-spot interviews.

Company aims to help state parolees succeed in life

A free job-fair preparation drop-in center will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 12, at GEO Reentry Services to help re-entrants develop their resumes and practice being interviewed.

Those who successfully complete the prep will receive a free bus pass to and from the job fair, according to the flyer.

Call GEO Reentry Services at 717-848-4448 to schedule a free 30-minute appointment.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.