Re-entry house to help parolees get back into society

TOWANDA - Bradford County is planning to open a "re-entry house" in Towanda where non-violent offenders could stay temporarily upon their release from the county jail, county officials said.

"This is a place to reside ... while they get back on their feet and get a job and services lined up for themselves," Bradford County Chief Probation Officer Tom Schuster said.

The re-entry house is for offenders on parole who have mental health or drug or alcohol issues, county officials said,

Those selected to stay in the re-entry home would otherwise have to stay at the jail because they lack an acceptable "home plan," Schuster said.

Schuster explained that offenders cannot be released on parole from the jail unless they have a place to live. And that residence must be judged acceptable by the Bradford County Probation Department.

"There are people who would normally have been allowed to go home," Bradford County Human Services Director Bill Blevins said, "The only thing they need is a place to live."

The re-entry house will help address the overcrowding problem at the Bradford County jail, Bradford County Commissioner Daryl Miller said.

The re-entry house will be a two-story residence which can accommodate up to eight adult offenders at a time, Blevins said.

Those staying in the re-entry home will be required to undergo treatment and seek a permanent place to live, Blevins said.

"They will have to go counseling (while at the re-entry house). They will have to find a job. They can't just sit around and watch TV and eat Cheetos," Blevins said. "This is going to be work for them."

In addition, an offender with drug or alcohol problems who stays at the re-entry house will be required to attend, on a daily basis, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for at least 90 days, he said.

The maximum amount of time that an offender could stay at the re-entry facility will be four months, Miller said.

Miller said that the commissioners are "very much" behind the idea of establishing the re-entry house.

The facility is aimed at reducing recidivism, county officials said.

"We'll give it (the re-entry house) a try," Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko said. Staying at the facility is "basically a way to re-enter society," McLinko said.

Not a group home

"This is not a group home," Miller said about the re-entry facility, nor would there be any treatment or counseling taking place on site, he said. "This is just a mechanism" to help the offenders get the things in place they need to have a productive life outside of jail, he said.

Miller noted that it will be easier for the offenders to find a job and a permanent place to live using the re-entry house as a base, as opposed to being confined in jail.

Blevins said that the county has secured funding to launch the re-entry house.

The funding consists of "reinvestment dollars" that are provided by the state Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (OMHSAS) through Communities That Care Behavioral Health (CCBH), which is a managed care organization, he said.

Blevins declined to say how much money was awarded to establish the re-entry house, because the county is still negotiating the terms of the lease with the owners of the building, Roger and Lori Brown of Ulster Township.

However, Blevins said the amount awarded would be enough for the county to enter into a five-year lease of the property.

The county would only contribute up to $1,000 per month toward to cost of the program, the commissioners said.

The approvals needed for the facility have been secured, except for the fact that OMHSAS and the Behavioral Health Alliance of Rural Pennsylvania will still need to approve the terms of the lease, Blevins said. Blevins said he does not foresee any problems in getting the terms of the lease approved.

Offenders could start to move into the re-entry house as soon as six weeks from now, Blevins said on Thursday.

The building where the re-entry house will be established, 855 Main St., currently has tenants living in it, Blevins said.

However, those tenants will move out of the residence before the re-entry house opens, he said. The current tenants do have places to move to, he said.

The re-entry house will house both men and women, but on separate floors, he said.

The upper floor will be "a separate unit" from the ground floor, he said.

The upper floor can accommodate five offenders, while the ground floor will be able to accommodate three. If need be, the county could move two bunk beds into the house to increase its capacity to 10 offenders, but that would "get a little tight," Blevins said.

The county will not be staffing the re-entry house, because it would be too expensive to do that, Blevins said.

However, one of the participants in the re-entry program will be designated as the property manager, and the property manager will be required to report any problems in the house to appropriate authority, which could be the police, the Bradford County Probation Department, or, in most cases, the Bradford County Human Services Department, Blevins said.

Supervision

All of the offenders who reside in the home will also be under the supervision of probation officers, who would visit the house, both randomly and for scheduled visits, Schuster said.

There will also be random visits to the re-entry house conducted by law enforcement officers from the Bradford County Sheriff's Department, and by administrative case managers from the Bradford County Human Services Department, Blevins said.

"I'm sure there will be someone (checking on the house) on a daily basis," Blevins said.

The re-entry house "will be closely monitored," Miller said. The county wants to make sure that the participants do what they need to do to become productive members of society, he explained.

Violent offenders, drug dealers, and sex offenders will all be ineligible to live in the re-entry house, Blevins said.

The most common offense that people living in the re-entry house would have been convicted of will probably be DUI, he said.

Other offenses that the participants could have been convicted of include simple assault, he said.

Blevins explained that someone who is convicted once of simple assault is not classified as violent.

Officials at the jail will recommend the names of offenders to be housed in the re-entry house, Blevins said. An offender must also be approved by the Bradford County Probation Department and Bradford County Human Services before he or she can stay in the re-entry house, Blevins said.

Electronic monitoring of the offenders will be part of the re-entry house program, Blevins said.

Probably all offenders who stay at the re-entry house will be placed on electronic monitoring, which means that they will have to wear an ankle bracelet which will allow probation officers to monitor their whereabouts using an internet-connected computer, Schuster said. Using GPS satellite tracking, probation officers will be able to monitor the location of the offenders "wherever they are, at any time," Schuster said.

Blevins said there will be "zero tolerance" for offenders who did not carry out their responsibilities while living at the re-entry house. For example, offenders who did not go to their treatment or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings would be subject to being returned to the jail, he said.

The county will also provide additional assistance in helping the participants find a job and a place to live, he said.

For example, there are agencies that the county contracts with that will help offenders find a place to live, Blevins said.

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com