National thought leaders to pilot prisoner reentry project in Milwaukee

Along with one other site, Milwaukee has been selected from a national pool of 25 applicants to serve as a testing ground for a pilot project aiming to better aid former prisoners with workforce reentry.

The Integrated Reentry and Employment Strategies Pilot Project, rolling out in both Milwaukee County and Philadelphia County (in Pennsylvania), is being spearheaded by the National Reentry Resource Center, an initiative of the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The NRRC, established under the federal Second Chance Act, exists to provide broad-based education on best practices for improving prison reentry to the field, according to Phoebe Potter, director of the behavioral health program at the CGS Justice Center, a national nonprofit that hones strategies to reinforce public safety.

At the core of the pilot project, for which designated locations were announced last month, the NRRC is determined to “maximize the impact of Milwaukee’s resources on better employment outcomes and reduced recidivism,” said Potter, also one of the project supervisors.

The NRRC’s pilot project aims to maximize workforce reentry resources in order to achieve better employment outcomes and reduced recidivism.

“The main outcome we’re looking to accomplish is to see individual improvements in employment outcomes and reduced recidivism as a result of more people accessing the right…treatment,” Potter said.

People often assume that communities are not adequately assisting prisoners with reentry because of a lack of resources, according to Potter.

The reality, however, is that the nation does have enough resources, but they are not being used effectively, she said.
Milwaukee County’s “rich network” of providers offering reentry programs or workforce programs was among the reasons the NRRC selected it for the pilot, Potter said.  

The pilot project, largely designed from a whitepaper released by the CGS Justice Center in September 2013, will be completed over the course of three years with two lead partners, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board. The two agencies teamed up to apply to the pilot project, in compliance with the NRRC’s requirement that corrections and workforce development entities partner to complete the application.

The pilot’s first step will focus on collecting information about what a good “client matching system” among prisoners and area agencies would look like, according to Potter. NRRC’s research division will analyze the population of prisoners trying to reenter Milwaukee’s workforce, assessing its needs and working to determine its varying levels of criminogenic risks and job readiness.

Researchers will also study area providers that specialize in services for criminals reentering the workforce. Their assessment will gauge how well these providers can meet the workforce development needs of the population and address criminogenic risk.

That data will inform the project’s goal of ensuring the right systems are in place to get individuals through the right doors into the right programs, with integrated support from corrections on the front end and providers on the back end.

During the second year of the project, implementation year, the NRRC will offer training and assistance to providers needing additional support to improve their services. Through partnerships with the National Institute of Corrections and the National Transitional Jobs Network, the NRRC will work to build the capacity of providers where it is needed.

The final year of the pilot will center on evaluation as the NRRC looks at changes in client outcomes in relation to the capacity of the providers serving their needs. The NRRC plans to issue a report highlighting implications of its findings for stakeholders in Wisconsin and implications of the findings in Milwaukee for jurisdictions across the country.

Potter said the rest of the country can learn from Milwaukee’s experience as every county lives with limited resources to allocate to reentry services.

Establishing a system for maximizing the impact of those dollars is critical to ensure support for reentry continues to enable positive outcomes, she said.

Throughout the course of the project, the NRRC will also rely on input from Milwaukee’s business community so the region’s workforce development services are aligned with the skill needs of local businesses, according to Potter.

And while the pilot is certainly intended to benefit individuals reentering society, its benefits will also tie directly into the business community, she said.

The project not only has the potential to make businesses’ communities safer, but it also shows potential to help employers fill skills gaps with a population that “is really an untapped resource of labor,” Potter said.

The NRRC’s pilot project, which is administered through in-kind services, is estimated to cost between $300,000 and $350,000 in both Milwaukee and Philadelphia counties. Project support is coming from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Annie E. Casey Foundation with guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor.

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