1st Judicial District Launches First Online Prisoner Reentry Resource

Aug. 22, 2013
Legal Intelligencer

The Legal Intelligencer – the oldest law journal in the United States – published an article Aug. 22 recognizing Philadelphia’s First Judicial District for its recent launch of the Network of Care for Prisoner Reentry. Read on:

PHILADELPHIA – When Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Ramy Djerassi started to preside over criminal cases, he wanted to refer ex-prisoners on probation or parole to reliable resources that could help them with their problems after their release back to society.

The trial judge said he had a "constant frustration that I just didn't know enough" to be able to make those referrals. And when probation/parole officers carry 300 cases, the officers alone can't be relied upon to make the referrals, Djerassi said.

The referrals are key to help probationers and parolees succeed in not going back to prison or jail, Djerassi said. Ex-prisoners often face obstacles that can result in violations of their probation/parole and then potentially being re-incarcerated, Djerassi said. For example, if an ex-prisoner is not abiding by his or her conditions of release by not going to mental health treatment, it might be because he or she does not have identification or he or she does not have insurance, Djerassi said.

Now, due to Djerassi and several other people, not only has the first reentry benchbook for judges been developed, but the resource is available to anyone online to help directly connect the formerly incarcerated to social services.

According to Mason Barnett, the development director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the resource: will be publicly accessible to ex-prisoners, their loved ones and social-service providers and case managers; gathers into one place information that doesn't exist anywhere else; and has innovative components such as for ex-prisoners to maintain private personal health records on the website and to become involved with legislative advocacy on issues that affect them.

"It's a one-stop shop for reentry needs that really has not existed at all," Barnett said.

"The whole re-entry thing is hot," Djerassi said. "About 60 days before release to about 90 days after release, that's where you can capture a lot of people who fall through the cracks for stupid reasons — often not their own fault."

"This is really landmark. Philadelphia can really become a national model," said Ann Schwartzman, policy and program director for the prison society.

Initially, Djerassi and other judges envisioned a benchbook to have a list of resources that judges could refer to while on the bench for issues such as housing, substance abuse treatment, job training, domestic abuse and medical treatment.

Djerassi had interns research re-entry resources, and they discovered that many organizations, including the prison society, had independently developed information for inmates re-entering society after being imprisoned.

The organizations and their resources were "in silos not talking to each other," Djerassi said. Due to the fact that providers change so often, the only way for the resource to stay valuable and current was for it to go online, he said.

Djerassi's former secretary and a graduate of law school this spring, Rosemary Auge, found the ultimate conduit to take the information online: Trilogy Integrated Resources, which has created databases of resources for people with mental health needs around the country, including in Pennsylvania.

Afshin Khosravi, Trilogy's chief executive officer, said 12 years ago he was dealing with fragmentation in funding in the field of aging, and he started a pilot in California in which all of the providers were collated in an online resource. Trilogy's work has expanded to create online databases of services for mental health, children, foster children, veterans and people with developmental disabilities.

"The issues are the same. The system is fragmented and it's impossible for people to navigate," he said.

The re-entry resource is the first one that Trilogy has succeeded to bring to fruition in the country after two other efforts failed, Khosravi said. In Philadelphia, judges, officials from the local mental health department, probation officials, social workers and case managers, and other agencies have come together, he said. Khosravi said he "saw for the first time the entire community coming together to tackle this issue."

"A prisoner that comes out of prison, their actual real-life needs far exceed that of the court order," Khosravi said.

The aim of the website is for it to be used by case managers and social workers to make referrals for their clients, for the site to be highly trusted by the community and to be adaptable so new client portals can be added, Khosravi said.

The site is being hosted by the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services for which Trilogy already created a website of mental health resources, and the site will be partly managed by the prison society. A total of 16 stakeholders have been involved, Schwartzman said.

Trilogy combined the hard-copy resources of the prison society, the Philadelphia Adult Probation and Parole Department and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania's re-entry court, Auge said.

The data will be driven by the agencies as they input their information, but records that have not been updated for six months will lead to Trilogy starting an automatic query to that agency to at least confirm their data, Barnett and Schwartzman said.

Iskar Smith, a prison society intern from Wheaton College who worked directly with providers to get the database up and running, said that information can quickly get out-of-date, but allowing providers to update their website presence due to changes in information, as criteria to get services from those providers changes or as grants become available, will keep the resource relevant.

"It changes with the recidivism community," Smith said.

It's a way for families to get information before their loved ones get out of jail or prison,” Schwartzman said, “and it's a way for ex-prisoners to find resources in their part of a big city.”

The website is slated to be officially launched this month or next month, Schwartzman said, and the preliminary site can be found at http://philadelphia.pa.networkofcare.org/ps.

Amaris Elliott-Engel can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or aelliott-engel@alm.com . Follow her on Twitter @AmarisTLI .