Berks County Reentry Success-DC Public Safety-NCJA-230,000 Requests a Month

Welcome to DC Public Safety – radio and television shows on crime, criminal offenders and the criminal justice system.

See for our television shows, blog and transcripts.

This radio program is available at

We welcome your comments or suggestions at or at Twitter at

– Audio begins –

Len Sipes: From our microphones in downtown Washington, D.C., this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. We have our friends from the Berks County Correctional System outside of Philadelphia. They’ve done, I think, an extraordinary job. They’ve been able to reduce recidivism in terms of a program they have at the county jail. I’m going to read a quick synopsis: Of the program graduates who have been released, 69 percent have remained out of jail and 64 percent are employed. And I think that for a jail system is really, really, really a unique contribution to the criminal justice system. They’ve been nominated by the National Criminal Justice Association for an award and this is one of the reasons why we’re doing this program and a continuation of programs done with the National Criminal Justice Association.

Before we begin the program, before we talk to our guest, our usual commercial. We’re up to 230,000 requests a month for public safety television, radio, blog, and transcripts. We are really extremely appreciative of all the comments that you’ve made in terms of either the blog itself or the radio and television show where you can comment directly or to me directly via email and the fact that so many of you are following us by Twitter. You can contact me directly: Leonard Sipes at Leonard L-E-O-N-A-R-D.sipes You can comment directly on the Web site, which is or you can get in touch with me or follow me by Twitter or contact me via Twitter at L-E-N sipes S-I-P-E-S, no gap in that.

We’re back to Tim Daly, the criminal justice coordinator for Berks County courts, Scott Rehr, the executive director for Berks Connections, and Warden George Wagner of the Berks County jail system. Scott and Tim and George, welcome back to D.C. Public Safety.

All Guests Together: Thank you.

Len Sipes: We were commenting off air about the difficulties of running a program like this within the jail setting. People just don’t seem to understand how difficult a large urban jail is. It’s not like it’s a prison, a state prison. It’s not like you have 1,000 offenders and pretty much you have 1,000 offenders on Wednesday and then have another 1,000 on Thursday. With the jail system, you can really have hundreds of individuals come to you in one night as a result of arrest and leave in terms of the bail process and then you have that number who stay, who are basically individuals who are convicted of a crime, but didn’t receive a sentence long enough for them to serve their time in the state prison system, so they serve their time in the county jail. Anybody who’s been in a jail system, especially a large urban jail system, the influx of people moving in and moving out of that jail system is just enormous. It is probably the most difficult correctional facility I can possibly imagine to manage and so to Warden George Wagner, would you agree or disagree?

George Wagner: Well, I would agree, Leonard, and I think that you’ve hit the real issue, the real problem that we face in a jail system. As you mentioned, in a prison system, which is different than a jail system, you have a few people who are committed to an institution, a prison institution, a few people who are committed and who stay a long time, so they can be large institutions but you don’t have a lot of turnover. In a jail system, much like we have here in Berks, a large jail system, our average daily population varies, but it could be anywhere between 1,000 and 1200 inmates but we see 8,000 or more, sometimes as many as 9,000 people, come and go in our institution. 8,000 or 9,000 people get committed and 8,000 or 9,000 people get released in every calendar year and that’s quite a difficult task to manage.

Len Sipes: That is an enormous task to manage. I mean, again, state prison systems; your population is somewhat static. I mean, the great majority of those, if you’re running a mainline state prison, not a pre-release center, but the mainline system, you start off that year with 1,000 offenders and, at the end of the year, you basically still have 1,000 offenders and the flux in terms of people moving in and moving out could be a matter of 200 or 300. My goodness, Warden, you could get literally 200 or 300 on a night.

George Wagner: That’s true and that’s one of the reasons we look at programs like we’ve been looking at with the folks from Berks Connections and we look at the programming and the opportunities that we have to deal with the folks that are coming through our institution and try to make some changes in their lives and to help them and follow them into the community. We can make an impact here at the local jail level. We’re going to make an incredible impact on the criminal justice system as a whole.

Len Sipes: And I think that’s a perfect segue to go over to Scott Rehr. Scott, you’re the executive director for Berks Connections. What is Berks Connections? And how did you hook up with the jail system?

Scott Rehr: Berks Connections is a non-profit agency headquartered here in Reading and we’ve been around since 1975 offering programming to individuals and families involved in the local criminal justice system. But in the last several years as Warden Wagner’s population continued to grow, I think our agency along with many other agencies, the Warden and his staff and the court system led by the criminal justice advisory board, really came together with their backs against the wall with some severe overcrowding at the county jail, a recidivism rate above 50 percent, we realized we couldn’t afford to do business as usual any more and our agency really led the effort in terms of on the community side of things getting other agencies and other individuals involved in putting the subject or successful reentry at the forefront of our community.

Len Sipes: And once again the reentry within the jail system is really difficult. I mean, we have, those of us in the reentry community throughout the United States dealing with the prison systems, that is a tough job. Doing it within the jail system is just an extraordinary undertaking. Was there a point where you said to yourself, this is just too big? Scott, do you think that you took a look at this population and said, there’s no way that we can deliver meaningful services to a population that’s constantly moving?

Scott Rehr: Absolutely so. And I think what makes the biggest difference and probably the most important component of the program is that assessment. To be able to develop that assessment tool to say this person needs these services, this person doesn’t, this person will be here long enough to be able to complete these services, and this person won’t. That’s really important. And so you take that population of anywhere from 1,000 to 1200 people, you remove from that the folks that are there on pre-trial status, haven’t been sentenced yet, you’ve got the sentenced population, you use tools such as the LSI, the level of service inventory, and an assessment tool developed by all the local agencies here to identify those specific post-release needs and then you can kind of oil that whole problem down to, well, this person needs housing, this person needs employment, this person needs education, and really work on individualized reentry plans for those individuals who will benefit and will have the time to benefit from the programming.

Len Sipes: Now, one of the things I do want to emphasize in terms of the larger program is that it’s not just a matter of a non-profit agency. Scott, that Berks Connections is a non-profit agency?

Scott Rehr: Yeah. We are a non-profit agency, but again the leadership from this, where we came from, the non-profit community via Berks Connections, but it came from the Warden and from the county. If Warden Wagner didn’t say this is important to him and, as you both have said, he’s got enough issues to worry about without having to even think about successful reentry. But he decided this was important to him and so he and his staff became integral parts and leaders of this effort and then it came to the courts and the criminal justice advisory board with Tim saying this is something we want to do. The policy board, the advisory board, set up a task force several years ago with reentry as its primary focus and started working along with us with these plans. We brought 35 government and non-profit agencies in this process and so today you have over 35 agencies who are participating in helping to provide the opportunity for successful reentry for folks coming out of the jail system.

Len Sipes: And I think that is truly the impressive thing because so many of the times, so much of the time, we within the criminal justice system are sort of accused of being lone wolfs, that it’s pretty much our responsibility, whether it’s law enforcement, whether it’s corrections, whether it’s the judiciary, we like, traditionally at least, we like to go it alone. I remember in the President’s report on crime and criminal justice back in the 60’s and he said that was probably one of the biggest detriments to crime control was the fact that we are insular in nature and we do not embrace each other in terms of a common approach. And now we have Tim Daly, the criminal justice coordinator for Berks County Courts. Tim, so you have the courts involved in this, you have the executive branch of government, which is the Berks County jail system, and you have Scott’s organization and you all have come together for the common good.

Tim Daly: Yes. We really do. I think what we have is a very unique type, group of people, of dedicated justice system professionals who go beyond, as you said, go beyond looking at their own individual needs and, kind of, look at this as a system that whatever one person does, it would affect just about anybody else within the justice system. What makes our organization, I think, very unique is the fact that we’re comprehensively represented. We have the judicial, the legislative, law enforcement, and the after care community sitting at the table. There’s approximately 34 members of this organization and they are the chief decision makers of each agency. So, they’ve made the commitment with their precious time that they would come together at the table every two months and would sit down and talk about extremely important topics and try and problem-solve amongst each other. So that the nice thing as the executive director, when we leave that room, we know what’s going to be done because the chief decision makers said that they would do this.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh.

Tim Daly: So, that becomes a tremendous asset.

Len Sipes: That becomes so important. Rather than mid-level people sitting there and saying, well, talk to our agency heads and see what our agency heads have to say. The agency heads are sitting at the table.

George Wagner: If I could comment, this is George Wagner again. One of the things that I think that we have to stress if we have this criminal justice advisory board and, as Tim Daly said, the leaders of all the agencies, the district attorney, the public defender, representatives from the chiefs of police association, the county commissioners, all the folks, all the key players, the judges, court administrators, everybody in the system that’s a key player in criminal justice sat down, we’ve been working on a bunch of projects over the years, but we got together at a retreat nearly two years ago now and, during that retreat, where we spent a day together, we sat down and brainstormed and asked ourselves what real issue do we, what do we need to solve? What’s going to make this whole system work better? And I shouldn’t even say, to my amazement, I was flattered to find that group of folks said, we need to find a way to address the population problem at the jail and to address it in a way that’s different than just saying, let’s get people out of jail. Let’s make sure they don’t come back. And that was the impetus for this program. And the result was what I think is a novel approach to community reentry, which is programming that doesn’t just start in the jail and end, but that follows inmates into the community with after care that’s provided by jail staff, community staff, probation and parole staff, everybody who’s involved, the courts if it’s drug courts. But it’s an integrated effort and just seeing how successful it is is unbelievable.

Len Sipes: I do want to remind everybody that the program we’re talking is not just an academic exercise, but again the program graduates who have been released, 69 percent have remained out of jail. Now, people don’t quite understand that the recidivism in this country is extraordinarily high. Now, the landmark study, and it’s an old study, but it’s still the landmark study, is that two-thirds are re-arrested and 50 percent return to prison. That’s people graduating from state prison systems and those are individuals who have, generally speaking, a longer criminal history and a more serious criminal history than the people who ended up in the jail system, but nevertheless, the program graduates that have been released 69 percent have remained out of jail. So, I just don’t know how to put that into context for people who are listening, but that’s extraordinarily good. And 64 percent are employed and that is also extraordinarily good because the employment rates throughout the country, generally speaking, on any given day hover around 50 percent. So, it’s just not an academic exercise of people coming together and saying, let’s help, let’s reduce the jail population. What you’ve done is extraordinarily successful; the reason why you were recognized by the National Criminal Justice Association.

Tim Daly: Well, one of the key things we did; again a plug is, we took a look and went into the jail and did the assessments of individual inmates to find out what the specific post-release needs are. So, we knew going into this that 74 percent of the people walk out of the jail without a job. So, we as a country are concerned about an unemployment rate that’s above 10 percent. For folks coming out of the Berks County jail, it’s 74 percent. So, to be able to turn that number around, I think, is a pretty impressive statistic, but I think also what really makes it work for us is we talked about when people go to the state prison, they go far away and they stay for a long time. With the jail, again, 90 percent of those people are coming back into the local community and a 50 percent recidivism rate is not good, but it also means that people coming back into communities within Berks County, if we can bring the community resources into the jail before that individual inmate is released and start working on those individual issues and then have that same agency and those same individuals assist them after the release, that continuity of care, I think, really is what makes the difference here. And, with the Jobs Program, where you’ve got 69 percent of the people working, that’s because Career Link, which is Pennsylvania’s version of the one stop employment shop, you’ve got local government, state government, and national government funding all under one roof, our Career Link with our agency goes into the jail for a six weeks job readiness course where they get signed up on the Career Link system. They get their resume done, they do mock interview, and they get all these things done with a community-based agency before they’re released. Once they’re out into the community, we work with a parole officer and make sure they get back to the Career Link, to get into our office, and we continue that follow-up for up to three years post-release.

Len Sipes: We’re halfway through the program and I want to reintroduce our guests. We have Scott Rehr, the executive director of Berks Connections; Tim Daly, the criminal justice coordinator for Berks County courts; Warden George Wagner of the Berks County jail system. If you want to get additional information about this program, the address is Also, the program is being brought to you through the auspices of the National Criminal Justice Association, who recognizes exemplary criminal justice programs throughout the country and we do radio shows with them. You can go to the website of the National Criminal Justice Association, They’re absolutely wonderful people doing an absolutely wonderful job. Okay. Back to the program. Now, okay, so we have this coordination and we have a continuum of services that we provide to offenders in the Berks County jail system and we follow-up these offenders in the community. We do an assessment in terms of the particular needs of that offender. But, again, to people who don’t quite understand the criminal justice system and who don’t quite understand corrections, the level of needs for offenders is astounding. You have national research that basically says that 55 percent claim mental health problems. Now, that’s not a diagnosable mental issue, like schizophrenia, which is about 16 percent nationally, but 55 percent claim mental health problems. 70 to 80 percent say that they have histories of substance abuse. In many cases or if not most cases, those histories of substance abuse are considerable. Most come from single family household, single parent households. Most come from low income areas. The list of problems that offenders caught up in the criminal justice system bring to the table go on and on and on and there are people out there, gentlemen, who basically say, wow, this is just too big of an issue. I don’t know how to deal with all the issues; the mental health, the substance abuse, the self-esteem, the anger management, the reuniting the offender with his kids. There’s a certain point where that becomes overwhelming, which is one of the reasons why people in correctional systems throughout the country have been hesitant to take on this issue of reentry, which makes your achievement even that much more remarkable. How do you deal with all the problems?

Scott Rehr: This is Scott. I think it really, again, comes down to that collaboration. You have to have the drug and alcohol community on board. You have to have the mental health community on board. You know, and we all know intrinsically, that jobs are critically important. Education, you’re not going to get a job, you’re not going to get a sustainable job if you don’t have a GED or your high school education. We know 54 percent of the people coming out of the jail don’t. You know that housing is a critical issue; 19 percent of the jail have told us that they don’t know where they’re going to go when they get released. So, you have

Len Sipes: 19 percent.

Scott Rehr: You have to get those services provided on board and then surround all of that with a case manager. But the other thing we’ve done working with the faith-based community is develop a mentoring program so that there is not a team of faith mentors that are also helping this individual. So, at the end of the day when that individual who’s involved in this program walks out of the doors of the jail, they’ve got the follow-up from the jail, they’ve got the case manager from our agency, they’ve got a parole officer, they will hopefully have a faith-based mentor. They’ve got a team, a support team, in place there to help them. I think really you have to do that, but you’re also right. You can’t do it for everyone. So, you’ve got to do that upfront analysis to figure out who’s going to benefit most from what you can provide.

George Wagner: A few moments ago I spoke about how we made this conscious effort to try to address these problems and to make a change and you’re right, Leonard. It’s a daunting thought, especially from someone who runs a jail system to think about well, how the heck am I going to do that? I don’t have the resources here. I’m certain that I can’t secure the resources. If I go to the county fathers and say I need more staff for these kind of things, whether it be popular or unpopular, the simple fact of the matter is it costs a lot of money to try to put together an all-encompassing program like that and, then in our discussions with the folks from the criminal justice advisory board and through Scott’s leadership with a non-profit organization, we’ve started meeting with the agencies and the groups of people, the religious community, all the agencies in Berks County who deal with these inmates after they’re released in one way or another. And that community resource network, which Scott founded through meetings, what I thought was really refreshing was we started meeting with these folks and we found that they were quite interested in helping us address the problem and that was at the point where I said, you know what? We can easily do this because we don’t have to at the jail come up with a solution. I’m looking around the room at the community resource network and I have 50 solutions in front of me.

Len Sipes: Uh-huh. Which is impressive, but again just in terms of context for folks who are not familiar with the criminal justice system, nevertheless unusual, to have a wide variety of organizations coming together for the common good. Because fiscally there’s a lot of states out there that are involved meaningfully in reentry nowadays, but their principle point is fiscal, not serving individuals and their social needs. They’re simply saying, we can no longer continue to spend the tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, on correctional systems. What’s the best way of helping people stay out of the prison system? And so to the folks there in Berks County need to understand, I think, that in terms of your results that you’ve been able to save the citizens of Berks County an awful lot of money. So, I know that everybody is doing this from a higher point of view, from the standpoint of helping individuals come to grips with their lives, but what that does is it saves citizens a lot of money and, consequently, it saves citizens from victimization. So, you’re not expressing that in terms of the materials that I’ve read in the conversation today, but that’s a reality, is it not?

Scott Rehr: Yeah. And it’s also the realization that a lot of these agencies had coming to these meetings was that they’re seeing these individuals anyway. I mean, the folks that are coming out of the criminal justice system and coming out of the jail system that have all of these needs that we’ve delineated, they’re showing up on the doorstep of a non-profit agency two-thirds of the way back to jail already and they’re spending a lot of time and effort to try to get that person to where they need to be. So, we can start working with that person much earlier on in the process and do it collaboratively. At the end of the day, that agency is going to spend less time and less money helping that individual if we can do it right from the get-go.

Len Sipes: Right. And, as always, it’s interesting because the letters I get or the emails and some of the comments that I end up getting is the sense of, Leonard, we desperately need money for schools. We desperately need money for an aging population. We desperately need money for infrastructure. Why are you asking us to put money into criminal offenders who have done damage to other human beings and, in many cases, damage to themselves and damage elsewhere? But it seems rather straight-forward, regardless of what side of the political side that you happen to be on, that if an individual comes out of the Berks County system and has a mental health issue and, if it’s untreated either in the jail or within the community, the probability of that person going out and bothering somebody or committing another crime seems to be pretty high. But nobody disagrees with that. Nobody says, well, okay, fine. I may have disagreements about employment programs or drug treatment, but, no, of course, if the person’s mental illness issues are not addressed, then in all probability he’s going to re-victimize society. Well, that seems to me to be straight-forward, does it not? I mean, that’s one of the things that always confuses me about this larger question of reentry that the more collaboration you have, the more money you throw at the issue and, if you do it smart like you guys are doing it in terms of a needs assessment upfront, you reduce the strain on the larger society from a public services point of view, from a taxpayer’s point of view, and from a crime reduction point of view. So, I just think it’s a win-win situation for everybody, but I note that the great majority of the correctional systems in the country are not doing reentry and there’s got to be a reason for that and I think that’s the reason because of (a) people find it overwhelming, (b) people just want to put their money elsewhere.

Scott Rehr: Right. Well, don’t think we didn’t consider that for one moment and it’s not one of the impetuses behind what we’re doing. We certainly know within the long run this is going to save money, not just for the jail system, but for the criminal justice system as a whole. If we can successfully re-integrate somebody, they don’t get rearrested without spending law enforcement dollars. We’re not spending court dollars to have them processed through the judicial system and, most importantly, we’re not spending jail dollars. In our Commonwealth, the jail is completely funded by local tax dollars. There’s no state or federal funding. And, if our rate of growth continues as it has for the last 15 years, over the next 25 years, we’re going to spend $500,000,000 here at our local jail and that’s all county tax dollars; that’s real money. We can’t keep spending money that way simply to hold people temporarily in our custody and then wish them well as they walk out the door.

Len Sipes: Well, if you provide those services upfront, maybe you won’t have to spend the $500,000,000. Think about that. $500,000,000 at the county level. We’re not talking the federal level, we’re not talking the state level, we’re talking the county level, $500,000,000. If you can save the taxpayers half of that $500,000,000, that’s an enormous savings.

Tim Daly: It sure is.

Scott Rehr: And one of the things we’re really most proud of for this program is the community side, our agency side, of this equation is funded primarily from the local United Way. So, it’s community dollars flowing into the United Way, the United Way of Berks County, that is funding a substantial portion of this program.

Len Sipes: Well, I’m not quite sure how much publicity you have gotten in the Philadelphia area. I get a newspaper clipping service delivered to my in box on my computer every day from around the country. I don’t remember seeing a lot or reading a lot about the Berks County system, but you’all, heavens, need to be congratulated. People throughout the country or beyond simply have this assumption that the criminal justice system works in lock step with each other, sits down, collaborates at the highest levels and produces results that are in the taxpayer’s best interest and I think it’s unique that, I don’t know how many letters of congratulations or congratulatory articles that you’all have received, but I simply think that people need to understand that this is both unique and effective and that’s why the National Criminal Justice system brought your program to our attention.

Scott Rehr: Well, thank you.

Tim Daly: Yes. Thank you very much.

Len Sipes: Where do we go to? We have a couple minutes left in the program. So, is this a program that you can expand? Is this a program that you can, even for that short term offender, come again, and when I say short term, in some cases, we’re only talking about a couple hours inside the system? So, I’m not quite sure what it is that you can do with an offender that is just being booked and released, but is this

Scott Rehr: Well, I think the Warden can tell you that the best and biggest part of this program hasn’t even begun yet.

George Wagner: Yes. What we’re planning to do, as a matter of fact, is with this experience that was developed through our relationship with Berks Connections, early next year we set a tentative date and we hope that we can make it and that tentative date is January 11 or shortly thereafter, if not on that date. We’ll be opening a 300-bed community reentry center here just across from the jail on the county welfare tract where we’ll be able to divert inmates into a community reentry setting and then actually introduce those folks that have been working with us from all these agencies into that facility. So, they’ll be working with the inmates directly rather than just simply meeting them, which they’re doing now, or having the connection established. They will be working with them in the community reentry center. A good example: You talked about drug and alcohol program earlier. We provide drug and alcohol programming now and then prior to someone’s release, we say, now don’t forget. You need to continue your drug and alcohol programming. Our counseling staff doesn’t do that, but you’ll need to see Mr. Smith and here’s his address in the community.

Len Sipes: That’s wonderful.

George Wagner: Well, that won’t happen anymore because what’s going to happen is Mr. Smith’s going to have an office in our CRC, our community reentry center, and that inmate will go down the hall and meet the person he is going to be interacting with in the community, probably weeks before his release, so that there will be an absolute smooth transition into the programming in drug and alcohol and many other areas; mental health, all those areas.

Len Sipes: Well, that’s a final word for this program, but stay with us. Maybe six months from the line, a year down the line, we can do another radio show talking about that expansion, the 300-bed expansion, and with the focus on reentry and basically tell us how it went. So, I look forward to doing that program. And I just want to remind everybody that our guests today have been Scott Rehr, executive director of Berks Connections; Tim Daly, the criminal justice coordinator for the Berks County court system, and Warden George Wagner, the Berks County jail system. The show is brought to you by the National Criminal Justice Association. They see it as their job to go around the country to pick the better programs or the best programs in the country and to bring them to our attention through D.C. Public Safety, so we can tell you about them. The contact numbers or contact point for the National Criminal Justice Association is The website address for Berks Connections is Ladies and Gentlemen, this is D.C. Public Safety. Up to 230,000 requests on a monthly basis for a radio/TV show, the blog and transcripts. We are extraordinary grateful for all your attention and we want everyone to have themselves a very pleasant day.

– Audio ends –

Terms: Berks County, reentry, Berks Connections, jails, courts

%d bloggers like this: