Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Defenders Address Clients' Transitions Back to Society

Those who have done time behind bars for crimes often find it difficult to transition back home once they’ve paid their debt to society, including trouble finding employment and housing opportunities.

“The first thing is finding employment. There are many challenges for people with criminal histories. Employers are looking for stable people who will be there every day, who will fulfill their roles and bring benefits to the employer’s company,” said J. Jondhi Harrell, executive director and founder of 
The Center for Returning Citizens, a Philadelphia organization that helps people transition from incarceration to society. “Violence on a record can scare employers.”

According to the organization’s website it is “dedicated to restorative approaches in battling the effects of mass incarceration upon individuals, families and the community.” The organization embraces “a culture of hard work, family responsibility, community involvement, ethical behavior and social consciousness,” according to its website.

“We help them create a life plan and set goals. We provide a foundation for their lives. We find employment. We find housing,” said Harrell, adding the organization also assists former inmates with obtaining drug and alcohol or mental health counseling. “Whatever a person needs to sustain them in their day-to-day life, that’s our focus.”
J. Jondhi Harrell, executive director The Center for Returning Citizens

Harrell said the organization accomplishes its goals through programs that provide counseling for the children of incarcerated parents; provide social and educational opportunities for at-risk youth in communities; and assist citizens returning from prison, both male and female, and those who have been home for various time periods but are still suffering from mass incarceration and its effect on their transition to freedom.

In August, Harrell, at the request of county Assistant Public Defender Alexander De Simone, appeared in county court during a sentencing hearing for convicted robber William Lee Adams to tell a judge about the benefits of the special re-entry program.

Montco Assistant Public Defender Alexander De Simone
“We took a creative stand on sentencing. It’s a re-entry program,” De Simone told me, adding Adams, 48, previously spent 20 years in prison as a young man. “That’s the prime of your life. That’s when you learn what reality is and you learn how to deal with society at-large. He missed that. He didn’t have life skills, didn’t have job skills.”

After hearing Harrell’s testimony, Judge Garrett D. Page sentenced Adams, a Philadelphia man who robbed the TD Bank branch in Montgomery Township of about $6,700 in February 2014, to jail time but also ordered that he be paroled to the special re-entry program to help him transition back to society.

It was only the second time that public defenders have proposed TCRC as a sentencing tool. After hearing Harrell’s enlightening testimony, I suspect defenders may propose TCRC in the future for other clients. Credit must go to De Simone for bringing the unique program to the attention of the judge.

During the last several years, as criminal justice-related issues like mass incarceration and police and sentencing practices were discussed nationwide, the public defender’s office launched several initiatives aimed at improving indigent defense services and with a client-centered advocacy philosophy. Those initiatives have included holding expungement clinics and hiring its first social worker who helps defenders identify specific individualized rehabilitative options for clients during the court process.

“I hope for the best for Mr. Adams. I hope he sticks with the program and figures out how to live in society,” De Simone said after the judge ordered that Adams be paroled to the special re-entry program.
J. Jondhi Harrell (l) with Montco Assitant Public Defender Alexander De Simone/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Harrell said the organization has assisted 640 people since its inception in 2012 and currently is assisting 230 people.
“We have a small staff of about 4 to 5 people. But how we really do our work is through our volunteer staff. We have about 25 to 30 volunteers who represent a wide range of services. We have retired social workers, psychologists and counselors and mentors and they devote their time and energy because they believe in the mission and they believe in the philosophy,” Harrell said.

For more information about TCRC or to inquire about becoming a volunteer check out the organization’s website at www.tcrcphilly.org

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