Radically cutting recidivism with the three R’s in Berks County PA (S1E2)

On this episode of the Good Government show we travel to Reading, Pa and meet the folks from Berks County. We meet Peggy Kershner and Nikki Schnovel, who are the co-executive directors of the Berks Connections Pre-Trial Services. They came up with a better way to greatly reduce recidivism and becoming effective members of the workforce. They created 3 Rs’ Program that teaches work and life skills. We meet former gang members and drug dealers whose lives were changed by the program. We also sit down with Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach who meets with each of these program graduates and sees the huge advantages to continue this program. Commissioner Leinbach explains how it’s good for the former criminals, county government and the people he represents.

Transcript of Reading Revitalization (S1E2)

Carol D’Auria: This is a good government show.

Nikki Schnovel: We had one participant’s mother who came up to me after graduation and gave me a big hug and said, thank you for saving my son’s life if he did not do this program. He would be dead.

Angel Candelario: I know that these things that I’m doing now, I don’t know where is it going, but I know. Teach me something, and it’s going to lead somewhere, someplace positive, so.

Nikki Schnovel: The graduates of the program aren’t going back to jail. They’re holding stable employment and they’re able to have family sustaining jobs.

David Martin: Once they were criminals, they rob people, they sold drugs, a lot of drugs, they shot people, they were in gangs. They lived a life of crime, but that was before it. Now they’re carpenters, the bricklayers, their kitchen workers. They work with their hands. They build houses for the homeless. And more importantly, they’re gainfully employed and have left their old life behind. This is a story of good government action in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and their very successful program called Our three Rebuilding Re-entrance and Reading.

Welcome to the Good Government Show. I’m David Martin.

Carol: And I’m Carol D’auria. And on this episode of The Good Government Show, we are traveling to Reading, Pennsylvania and finding out how they have been able to turn these hardened criminals into productive members of the community. Sounds like a pretty amazing story.

Robbers, killers and drug dealers, David, they’re now working and staying out of trouble?

David: Yeah, and not only the employ. This R3 program has seen huge drops in the rates of recidivism, and more importantly, most of the folks who pass on this program get a job and keep it.

Carol: Really? So what’s going on in Berks County?

David: All right. Well, a lot of stuff is going on and it’s all good. So let me give you a little bit of background because you’ve never been arrested, I guess. No, not even like as a kid.

Carol: And even a little tiny bit.

David: Good. Good for you. So but when you do get arrested, not that I know personally. Anyway, another story. When you get arrested, you go through several systems and then when you come out of the system, you need a job.

But these folks, they have no skills and they don’t have much of a support system. So this is where Peggy Kershner comes in. She’s the co-executive director of the Berks Connection Pretrial Services, and she got a $1.2 million grant, and she helped to create this R3 program.

Carol: So how does the R3 program really work?

David: So what happens is these prisoners apply for the program and they have to go through a pretty rigorous screening if they make it and they don’t all make the program. Then they spend the next eight weeks learning life skills in the construction trade. But they have challenges. It’s sort of a chicken and egg thing because they need the education and training, but they need the job and they need money to.

Peggy Kershner: For the most part, the individuals we work with come from very low income backgrounds. They have poor work histories and most of them are on probation and parole. They need employment. Um, they need that to be steady and stable, and they aren’t able to take time away from those jobs to attend classes or training or anything like that. So we were hoping to find a way to bring a career pathway to them where they can learn some skills and get into well-paying family sustaining jobs.

Carol: But you said some of these are, well, pretty bad people. How do they choose them?

David: I’ll let Peggy explain it.

Peggy Kershner: What we take a look at is not what the charges were or the mistakes that the individuals may have made in the past. What we are more interested in is where is this person right now? And are they at a point where we believe that they are ready to make a change?

The R3 program requires a ton of accountability, and we want to make sure that they’re at a place in their lives to be successful in the program.

Carol: Do they all make it, though?

David: No, no. They don’t all make it. Some are sent to drug treatment centers and are told to come back and apply another time. They’re pretty hard on them because to stay in this program, you really have to be dedicated. So for these men, and yes, a few of the women have gone through this program too, the hardest part, wasn’t learning a trade, but it’s developing a completely new way of thinking, co-executive director and co-founder Nicky Schnovel explains.

Nikki Schnovel: The biggest reason for the success of the graduates is really not the skills training that they’re getting. It’s the cognitive programing which addresses the way that they think and how they act in risky situations. We’ve had a lot of graduates tell us that they are able to apply it to everyday life, not just at the work, so they’ve been able to improve their relationships with they have with their family and their friends. It’s also changed how they react in risky situations. So instead of getting into fights and things like that, they’re able to manage them much better and be successful because of that.

Carol: That is really a key element, isn’t it? You can teach someone a skill that if they still hang out with the old gang buddies and they’re still trying to make a fast buck, it will ultimately fail.

David: The sponsor of the good government show is Liquid.

Carol: And we love Liquid, and not just because they are the sponsor.

David: Well, that’s why we love them, because they are the sponsor. But Liquid, what they are, is they’re a digital marketing and technology company. And what they do is they help other companies find their customers and they engage them digitally. One of their customers was a fifth generation business, and Liquid got involved and helped them tell their story and highlight their rich history on their new website that liquid created.

Carol: The family had trouble just talking about their products. Well Liquid showed them a clear way to get their message across?

David: And now they have a new award winning web site thanks to Liquid, where they have people that make websites and write websites and create websites.

Carol: That’s right, Liquid has a full creative staff. They find out where each customer’s clients live online, whether it’s Facebook or YouTube or LinkedIn, whatever it is. The bottom line is Liquid helps their customers with a full digital marketing campaign.

David: And that’s why we love Liquid and because they’re our sponsor. But we really do love Liquid. At Liquid, they make digital work, so check them out on the World Wide Web at Liquid INT dot com. That’s Liquid INT dot com.

But there’s a whole other parts of this I haven’t told you about yet.

Carol: You mean it’s getting better. What are you going to tell me? They all went to college.

David: No better than that. They build homes for Habitat for Humanity.

Carol: I didn’t see that coming.

David: Yeah, it’s it’s all part of their training. They get some practical experience and they spend part of their time building homes.

Peggy Kershner: Several days a week. We bring the participants to a Habitat for Humanity location where they are able to work on projects where they are rehabbing blighted homes in the city of Reading. They work with the project manager at Habitat and do everything from drywall roofing painting. They’re gaining experience in a wide variety of construction related things. This allows them to put what they’re learning at the Career and Technology Center, where they have classes also during the week and really put it to use not only rehabbing the houses but really helping as the title of the program is Rebuild Reading.

We also found that this provided a great place to showcase these individuals to employers. We can bring employers on site and they’re able to see the participants actually doing masonry, doing drywall and get a feel for how they might be as employees. One really nice aspect of this component has been that we have provided so many hours, volunteer hours, for Habitat for Humanity that we have really been able to help them advance their work and put them way ahead of where they would be otherwise with these rehab projects.

David: Now that the program is established a success, Berks County continues to fund it. Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach says it’s truly a model program.

Christian Leinbach: They take the theory out of the classroom, and they now put it into practice. Whether they’re painting, they’re doing electrical work, they’re doing carpentry work, they get to see it in action, and each of those students realize that they’re now part of something bigger than even a program.

They’re helping to change lives with the family that ends up taking ownership of that home.

Carol: What a great idea. You teach people to think differently. You teach them a trade. You put them to work, helping others. So what are the guys think about all of this when they get out of the program?

David: Well, first of all, when they get out of this program, 70% of these people are employed and stay employed after one year. And the rate of people who go through this program and arrested again and going back to jail is just 2%, 2%. That means 98% of the people who graduate stay out of jail. Now you compare that nationally, 43% of people who are released from prison wind up going back to prison, within a year or so, almost half of the people go back to prison.

These folks, 2% go back. It’s pretty remarkable. And luckily, I got to meet a few of these people. I went to a job site in Reading, the renovating a a former bank and working for this company called Reading Bucket Service. A guy named John Miller owns the company. He really likes hiring these guys as they come with a good support system. They have a good work ethic. They’re happy to be there. And, you know, he says, Hey, everybody needs a helping hand. He’s glad to help out.

So let me tell you about one other guy. His name is Angel Candelario. He’s 48, he’s a graduate of the program. He’s not working construction. He works at a vegetarian restaurant. It’s different, but it’s a job where he works there full time. He has a future, he says. This is a guy who grew up without a father. He says mother didn’t provide much guidance. And as a result, he was in a gang and he sold drugs. Not now. Now he has a future.

Angel Candelario: Really, since 1987, actually I’ve been into a criminal type lifestyle. So a long time, very, very long time. But now I’m doing good, I’m glad that I decided to change that route, that God has given me an opportunity to see a vision. To change, to want to change, because usually you get around this age and you want to just be stuck in your ways and not change at all.

David: Angel says the training helped him save money and think about how to better manage himself. Another guy I talked to agreed and said a paycheck was better than fast money.

Angel Candelario: I actually saved 60% of my income from him. The best thing I know you’re doing something is you can pay to just do classes and learn something like, who does that right? It was a no-brainer for me to come. Here was the best thing. I’ll keep saying that the end.

David: For Angel, it not only turned his life around, but he hopes it inspires others.

Angel Candelario: You don’t want to go back to jail, you want an apartment, you want nice things you want. Come here, come here because you want some good things. You want to learn things. You come here, you’ve been in jail, all that stuff. You’re going to go everywhere else. And these people are really not going to help you, not lead you. These people, they’re not going to feed you staking and will grab you by the hand and give you some milk.

Little by little. And build you up until. You could send you on your way and you could do it on your own. Like. I didn’t know how to do it, I needed people to help me along the way and BCPS did that. I really didn’t know how to go left right nothing.

David: So there’s just kind of one other thing I wanted to explore Carol. For many of the people, the idea of investing money in career criminals, it’s just a waste of money. So I put that to Commissioner Leinbach; “When you hear funding for prisoners, funding for felons, funding for murderers, you know, trying to rehabilitate them, that can be a hard sell. Is that correct? And how do you how do you sell that?”

Christian Leinbach: And you’re absolutely right. When somebody hears you’re providing programing to somebody that was involved in a murder and assault. And my answer is these are individuals that are going to be coming out of the jail system and into our communities. Do you think they’re better off and that we are better off if they have a purpose?

David: Yeah. And Christian said, You know, really, when you think about it, it costs money to house a prisoner. So really, this is a money saving program.

Carol: Great. They have great inspirational stories and it’s an overall great story.

David: Yes. And I just want to give a politician the last word. Crucial line back, I think really, really summed up this program nicely.

Christian Leinbach: If all of us are honest, we all have had second chances, third chances, fourth chances. Life is about mistakes and learning from them. And this program recognizes that individuals coming out of our county jail or in some cases coming out of our treatment courts, they make bad decisions in their lives.

They understand that. But this gives them a way out long term, focusing on the construction trade industry. And I’ve seen peoples whose lives have been turned around by the program.

David: So that’s how good government works in Reading, Pennsylvania and Berks County.

Carol: Yes, good government inaction, criminals learning a trade and staying out of jail.

David: So that’s our show. Join us the next time on the Good Government Show when we bring you another story of some in government saying there must be a better way. And then they make it happen.

Carol: I’m Carol D’auria.

David: And I’m David Martin. See you next time on the Good Government Show. The Good Government Show is a Valley Park Production, Jason Stershic is our editor and producer. Associate producers are Jade Ludlow and Mackenzie Martin, the executive producers of The Good Government Show are Jim Ludlow, David Martin and David Snyder. Join us again right here for another episode of The Good Government Show.