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A Trauma-Informed Perspective on Reentry

In the United States, approximately 1.6 million people are incarcerated in federal, state and county prisons. Ninety-five percent (95%) o these people will be released back into our communities. Nationwide, 68% of released offenders were rearrested for a new crime within three years; 77% were arrested within five years. Of those arrested within three years, 57% were arrested by the end of their first year out.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (1999), people who experienced any form of childhood abuse or neglect are nine times more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system than people who did not experience abuse or neglect. A high percentage of women in prison (up to 90%) have experienced sexual, physical, or emotional violence in a romantic relationship. For justice-involved men, many have witnessed someone being killed or seriously injured, been physically assaulted by either a stranger or a family member, or been sexually abused.

Because of the high prevalence of abuse experiences in the justice-involved population, it is essential that we take a trauma-informed approach to working with justice-involved individuals. A trauma-informed approach requires that those who work with justice-involved individuals reframe their perception of the offender from, “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” While this perspective does not excuse the criminal behavior, it provides a context and conceptualization for why the criminal activity occurred and how to prevent it from continuing.

We know from almost 40 years of research in abuse and interpersonal violence that early childhood abuse often has serious, long-lasting consequences. People who were abused as children often develop serious mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, oppositional and conduct-related problems, impulsivity and emotional control problems, and posttraumatic stress disorder. They develop low self-esteem and self-worth. They develop a cognitive view of the world in which they see themselves as worthless, the world as unsafe and scary, and their future as short and full of pain and fear. Their early, abusive relationships with caretakers lead to poor relationship functioning with both friends and romantic partners, often imbued with fear, mistrust, and manipulation. They may self-medicate through substance use and abuse, or may engage in theft, physical violence, or other criminal activity due to a poorly developed emotional control system. When these individuals enter prison, they are often retraumatized—either by other prisoners, poorly trained or monitored prison staff, or by the institutionalized trauma present in some prisons. This exacerbates their mental health symptoms and confirms their maladaptive schema due to the institutional trauma they may face.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) has developed recommendations and guidelines for trauma-informed policing, corrections, and probation. These recommendations and guidelines take a socioecological approach to rehabilitation and prevention of reoffending. When justice-involved individuals have a least-restrictive environment and daily contact with a corrections officer, they are provided a healthy balance of rules and boundaries with choice and self-determination. More importantly, reentry systems could provide the justice-involved individual with a wealth of services, such as mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, relationship skills training, anger management, stress management, job training and placement, housing placement, financial guidance, medical assistance, and support groups. When the causes of criminality are being addressed at the individual, interpersonal, social, and community level simultaneously, the likelihood of reoffending decreases dramatically because the context for offending has been reduced or removed.

In 2013, Erie Together, the region's anti-poverty movement, in partnership with UnifiedErie, Erie's violence reduction effort, agreed that re-entry was a priority for not only overall community safety efforts, but also in the efforts to increased self-sufficiency among residents within Erie County. Erie Together took the lead on convening a group of stakeholders to explore the creation of a countywide re-entry strategy. The stakeholder group of cross-sector representation stakeholders including law enforcement, social service, religious, government and educational professionals and ex-offenders met regularly over the course of three years to identify the challenges that re-entrants, now referred to as transitioning clients, were facing. They discussed action/milestones transitioning clients must generally achieve in order to be most successful. Local trends were reviewed, as well as national data. A variety of factors were considered including unemployment, mental health, drug and alcohol, housing, transportation, and others. The planning group concluded that the best strategy would be the creation of a "one-stop-shop" to deliver important services and connect transitioning clients to appropriate resources within the community. This "one-stop-shop" was the formation of the Erie County Re-Entry Services and Support Alliance (ECRSSA). With the support from a $1.2 million grant from The Erie Community Foundation and United Way of Erie County, the ECRSSA was launched in July 2016 under the umbrella of the Greater Erie Community Action Committee (GECAC).

The mission of the ECRSSA is to provide support and services to transitioning clients through an intentional network of community- and faith-based organizations in partnership with the criminal justice system. “Transitioning clients” are individuals released from federal, state or county prison reentering Erie County after serving a sentence for a criminal conviction; and/or people reentering a law-abiding life from criminal network involvement. The vision of ECRSSA is a county where transitioning clients are supported, empowered, and fully integrated into the community.

The primary goals of the ECRSSA are:

  1. Increase access and connections to support services and assistance for transitioning clients.

  2. Promote a responsible quality of life through positive family, spiritual and informal support connections.

  3. Achieve safer communities through reduced recidivism. “Recidivism” is defined as when an offender on probation or parole is returned to custody for new charges, technical parole violation(s) or both.

Referrals to the program can be made by jail and prison staff or a parole agent for someone who will be coming back to our community soon. ECRSSA also accept applications from people who have been out of jail or prison and need help finding a job or help getting connected to other support.

ECRSSA will help the eligible participant with accessing job training, employment, education, medical and/or mental health care, and housing while providing case management support during the initial six to twelve months of the Transitioning Client’s return to the community. If the person does not meet the intensive case management criteria, ECRSSA can offer less intensive case management support, resource coordination, to help guide the person in accessing programming for job skills training, employment, education, medical and/or mental health care, & other community supports.

The data demonstrate that ECRSSA has had a positive impact. Prior to ECRSSA, re-arrest rates in Erie County was 58% with 41% of transitioning individuals convicted and incarcerated. ECRSSA clients have a recidivism rate of 24% with only 7% convicted and incarcerated. A large proportion of ECRSSA participants have successfully accessed skills training, additional education, employment, drug and alcohol counseling, mental health counseling, connect with medical care, housing, shelter, incomes assistance, and identification. Estimates suggest that ECRSSA has led to a cumulative cost savings of approximately $2.7 million.

For more information about ECRSSA, please contact Sheila Silman, M.S., ECRSSA Re-Entry Program Manager, at (814) 459-4581 ext. 408, ssilman@gecac.org.

©2019 by Erie Coalition for a Trauma Informed Community.
Erie County
Pennsylvania