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Federal officials hail convict reentry program designed to prevent repeat crime

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

After serving their prison sentences and paying their debts to society, released convicts often struggle to settle into society and fall back into a life of crime. Federal officials and advocates in the not-for-profit sector were hailing a program Thursday that they say increases the chances of keeping convicts from returning to prison.

The week of April 24-30, 2016  is the first-ever recognition of National Reentry Week, during which law enforcers and human services workers are raising awareness of programs available to convicts who re-enter society but are not necessarily updated with the skills to help them become productive citizens.

U.S. Attorney William Hochul, during a gathering Thursday afternoon at Harvest House in Buffalo, recalled the proverb that while giving someone a fish may feed the person for a day but teaching the person to fish may help the person eat for a lifetime. 

Hochul said that nationwide, according to statistics, about 74 percent of those who are released from prison eventually return to committing a crime. But he suggested that a federal re-entry court in Buffalo, which gives convicts the opportunity to undergo job and skill training, has given Western New York a higher success rate.

"The successful graduates of this program have, in fact, gone on to contribute to the growth of this area," Hochul said. "They are continuing to spread the message that Western New York truly is a City of Good Neighbors. It is also helping make Western New York a dynamic, safe and healthy place not just for today's generation but for all those yet to come."

Harvest House's New Hope Education Center, located on Jefferson Avenue, hosts some of the training available to those released from prison and cooperating with undergoing re-entry court.

"We're part of a reentry team that helps folks to get an education, so that they can get living wage jobs, to get medical services that they need if they don't have health insurance, that's medical, dental and vision care," said Carol Murphy, director at Harvest House.

One of the program's success stories shared his story at Thursday's gathering to mark National Reentry Week. Melvin Jones shyly revealed his criminal past, a previous conviction for distributing a controlled substance. Jones said he sold drugs to raise money to feed his children, yet he also understood that after serving his time he needed to change his life.

He praised the reentry program and told others in attendance that other inmates need this chance to get on their feet.

"The inmates coming home need that type of structure," Jones said. "It's what your supposed to do anyway, try to find a job. not do crazy things to get you locked back up. It's a great program."

Jones added that he has some struggles in his life beyond bars. His marriage failed and he is struggling to get by on two jobs. But he also made clear he does not want to return to jail.

Advocates for reentry programs admit not everyone who enters will successfully complete the transition into productive, trouble-free civilian life. But they say that the investment made in this program is better than continuing to spend on repeat prosecutions and incarceration.

"If you can take the time to give people jobs, to give people support services in the community, the crime rate goes down," said Murphy. "It's just about that simple."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.