Slow but promising start for new program aimed at ex-cons

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As a convicted bank robber with poor credit, Casey Carrick wasn’t exactly a prime candidate for a bank loan.

Yet, last fall, nearly two years after his release from prison, Carrick found himself closing on a $12,000 loan that he’s using to pay for barber school. He already has a job lined up after graduation and dreams of one day opening his own shop.

Carrick, who committed the crime to feed a heroin addiction that he has since kicked, took advantage of an unusual new court program that helps federal convicts get back on their feet by hooking them up with a bank, a community college and drug-and-alcohol treatment. The initiative in the 33-county Middle District of Pennsylvania reflects a broader effort by judges nationwide to reduce recidivism through intensive court-supervised re-entry programs.

“My attitude coming out was, anything I could do to better my life, I was going to do,” said Carrick, 35, of Dunmore.

For Carrick, that meant enrolling in a 7-year-old Middle District program called CARE, or Court-Assisted Re-Entry, in which a federal judge, prosecutor, public defender and probation officials meet regularly with participating ex-inmates in an effort to help them set and meet goals, transition back into the community and avoid committing more crimes.

Last June, court officials expanded the program by striking a partnership with ESSA Bank & Trust, a Stroudsburg-based community bank, to offer money-management classes and loans of up to $15,000 to be used for housing, transportation or education. Additionally, Northampton Community College agreed to offer education services and Pyramid Healthcare Inc., drug treatment and counseling.

Carrick is an early success story, but the initiative has gotten off to a slow start. To date, the bank has worked with only three former inmates.

Judge Thomas Vanaskie of Scranton, who sits on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, believes it’s a matter of marketing.

“I’m very pleased with the way the program is running with our service providers. I’m very concerned about the low numbers we have in the program, and we’re trying our best to figure out ways to improve that,” he said. “I don’t know what kind of publicity we have received in the federal prisons, and that’s what has to happen.”

Curiously, while federal convicts have been slow to embrace the idea, prisoners in Pennsylvania’s state system caught wind of it and have been writing to program officials, asking to be included. Their letters prompted Vanaskie to propose to Gov. Tom Wolf a state-federal partnership to extend the program to state inmates. The Wolf administration has yet to respond.

“It’s in everybody’s best interest to reduce recidivism as much as possible,” Vanaskie said. “I know they screwed up, they’ve made bad mistakes, but a lot of them are decent folks.”

Carrick was a longtime heroin addict in desperate need of a fix when he stole a car, robbed a bank and took off for Atlantic City, New Jersey. Caught stealing a purse on the boardwalk, Carrick was brought back to Pennsylvania and pleaded guilty to federal charges.

He got clean in prison and said he’s stayed that way since getting out, going to school full-time while working two jobs. He credits a supportive family, a desire to be a good father to his 8-year-old son and his monthly meetings with the CARE team.

“Everyone at that table sincerely cares, and they want to help you,” he said.

That was on display at a CARE meeting in Scranton last week, when a former inmate who did federal time on marijuana charges had to confront a recent drunken driving arrest for which he was about to lose his driver’s license.

Held in a conference room instead of a courtroom, the private meeting found Vanaskie, the prosecutor and others offering words of encouragement, asking questions about the participant’s college plans and dispensing career advice.

Almost as an afterthought, the judge ordered a month of house arrest.

“We expect more. We’re all behind you; we’re all for seeing you succeed; this is what it’s been all about. And yet we’ve had the bumps in the road,” the judge told him.

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