It's Wednesday morning in United States Magistrate Judge L. Felipe Restrepo's courtroom at the Federal Court at Sixth and Market streets, and a few dozen high-risk ex-violent offenders are waiting to approach the podium. But instead of meting out sentences or issuing warnings, Restrepo warmly congratulates a participant as he appears in a new work uniform. When another steps forward for his review, Restrepo inquires about his family. And when an individual relates a problem — with obtaining a driver's license, or getting credit for a loan — the judge directs him to one of the lawyers or law students watching the relaxed proceedings.
If this sounds out of the ordinary for the Philadelphia justice system, that's because it is. It's part of Supervision to Aid Reentry (STAR), a program for violent offenders on supervised release.
It gets results. Participants have a recidivism rate of 18 percent; for those who complete a full 52 weeks of the program, the rate is just 8 percent. Compared to the recidivism rate for the approximately 40,000 people released from incarceration in the Philadelphia region each year — a staggering 59 percent are re-arrested within three years, according to a Philadelphia Prisons spokesperson — STAR's success is cause for celebration.
As for STAR's annual budget? It's next to nothing. Lawyers and law students offer their time on a pro bono basis. Because of such constraints, STAR serves only about 40 individuals at a time.
An assessment of re-entry programs in Philadelphia reveals that we do, in fact, understand how to address our crippling recidivism rate. Efforts like STAR and another yearlong program out of the Mayor's Office of Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders (RISE), have shown marked success. Yet neither is funded sufficiently to deploy those lessons on a meaningful scale. The result is a repeat-offender problem that continues to spiral out of control.
"The majority of the resources are spent locking people up. The ideas are there, but the budget for prisons versus RISE is pathetic," says University of Pennsylvania professor Ram Cnaan, who studies Philly's re-entry options.
Like STAR, RISE attempts to offer a comprehensive solution for ex-offenders. It provides on-site education, vocational training and case management, and also acts as a referral hub. Any problems that get in the way of holding down a job — substance-abuse, mental-health or housing issues — are handled by third-party social-services organizations. "If we just put someone in a job, we're setting them up for failure," RISE manager of training Wallace Custis says. "First we have to change their whole manner of thinking and behavior."
It works. Since its founding in 2009, the program has yielded a recidivism rate of 4 percent. But its annual budget — including the grants it must itself distribute to its supporting organizations — is less than $2 million, funded through the Philadelphia Prisons, along with federal and state funding and private grants. The office sees about 1,000 clients walk through the door each year, but can offer substantial services to only about 600 people.
Given that Philadelphia spent $231 million on incarceration and $550 million on law enforcement this fiscal year, RISE has a pretty small portion of the citywide crime-fighting pie.
"If you break down the numbers, it's not a lot of money to do all the work around re-entry," says RISE executive director William Hart, who points out that a year with RISE costs $4,500 per client, compared with the $30,000-per-inmate annual cost of incarceration.
Three out of four RISE clients do not have a high school diploma, and most come from areas of the city severely affected by high unemployment.
"We're dealing with the same parts of the city here. It's North Philly, Southwest, West Philly and Kensington — so we're talking about whole communities being impacted," he says. Helping individuals in those communities can have a ripple effect. "If we help someone get their life together, then suddenly we're making it that much more likely that we're breaking the cycle."
Leonard McCullough can attest to how challenging it can be to re-enter society. He did 10 years in state prison on a murder conviction in 1996. But the hardest part came when, at age 28, he was released back into society.
"It was hard. You feel isolated. There's a sense of loneliness when you do a stretch of time like that," he says. He had the support of his family, but no helpful re-entry services. He soon violated the terms of his parole and was sent to a 90-day program, which he said was a wake-up call. Since then, McCullough has turned his life around, but he's done so against long odds. It wasn't until he found a stable job that he really saw a future for himself, a life that now includes running a nonprofit devoted to helping Philly youth.
There are numerous programs — run by government, nonprofits and private citizens like McCullough — to stanch the flow of Philadelphians into prisons. But they're more a series of band-aids than a comprehensive response to the recidivism crisis.
Recently, the District Attorney's Office and the nonprofit Public/Private Ventures rolled out The Choice Is Yours, a yearlong, RISE-like prison-diversion program for first-time nonviolent felony drug offenders. The DA also offers the Accelerated Misdemeanor Program, the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Program and other initiatives designed to provide new routes around the mainstream justice system. A study by Pew last year found the DA's efforts had played an important role in reducing Philly's prison populations, though the city still had the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the nation.
There's also a patchwork of programs run by third-party agencies attempting to fill gaps in services on shoestring budgets. But their reach is limited. Likewise, the Philadelphia Prison System has stepped up educational and vocational services for inmates, partnering with outside programs like Roots to Re-Entry, a landscaping training program for work-release-eligible inmates through the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Roots has "been transformative" for participants, says Fran Marsh, who runs the initiative at PHS. But it can help only so many inmates — 29 last year — with its web of grants and private donations.
Traditionally, many re-entry programs have dealt with only job placement, or only education. A look inside the STAR courtroom shows how a holistic approach — paired with even a modest investment — can reap enormous returns.
While the STAR program's judges act as coach, cheerleader, mentor and, well, judge, depending on what's required, other participants also step up to the plate.
"The program is unique in that it has united all players in the criminal justice system to not only lower recidivism, but also repair lives," says Magistrate Judge Tim Rice, who started the STAR program with Magistrate Judge Restrepo back in 2007.
He says the program began in a time — much like today — when the city's homicide rate was ballooning: "When we started in '07, we knew that Philadelphia had one of the worst homicide rates, and we wanted to do something to chip away at that. Getting these guys integrated back into society is a good start."
It may sound unlikely, but simple encouragement goes a long way, he says. "I've had people in court tell me that this is the first time that anyone has said they were proud of them, that someone has tried to help them."