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How Philly plans to cut recidivism 25 percent in 5 years

Mayor Kenney isn't big on religion, he told a group assembled at Broad Street Ministry on Wednesday morning. But he does have a favorite biblical parable: the prodigal son.

Mayor Kenney isn't big on religion, he told a group assembled at Broad Street Ministry on Wednesday morning. But he does have a favorite biblical parable: the prodigal son.

It came to mind, he said, as he visited inmates in Philadelphia jails in recent months: "These individuals can become productive citizens, fathers, mothers, and family members - and taxpayers."

But, he added, "reentry is an incredibly complex challenge in a city as large as Philadelphia. The government cannot do this alone."

That was the reason for the event, a meeting of the Reentry Coalition of Philadelphia. It is seeking to coordinate, for the first time, the dozens of groups working on one of the city's most daunting challenges: How to change the script for the tens of thousands of people released from jail and prison each year.

City officials say it represents one of the largest efforts of its kind in the nation, and has an ambitious goal: to cut recidivism by 25 percent in five years.

To that end, the city has a strategic reentry plan, "Home for Good." It hired a full-time Reentry Coalition coordinator, Aviva Tevah. And it's begun training providers on evidence-based practices.

Also, Kenney has made a long-awaited hire for executive director of the city's Office of Reintegration Services. Ceciley Bradford-Jones, who was named to the post in September, said coordination of services is a top priority.

"It's really time to start tying the knots together and doing what everyone in here does well," Bradford-Jones said. "If we all do what we do well and not stretch, I promise you this will work."

Tevah cited the principle of "collective impact," a framework for collaboration that has been used successfully to address seemingly intractable problems, from Philadelphia's school-dropout crisis to childhood obesity in Somerville, Mass., and water quality in the Elizabeth River in Virginia. The idea is that by aligning government and nonprofit forces with a common agenda, shared measurements, and centralized support, large-scale change can be effected.

It's a new iteration of a coalition first formed in 2012 with support from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. That version was mostly government agencies. In March 2015, it was reinvented as it merged with Philly PRISM, a coalition of nonprofits.

But it's off to a slow start. In its first year, the coalition has struggled just to identify all the players and bring them aboard under a formal membership agreement. There are no data yet on who's getting services or what the outcomes are, and there won't be for some time.

For now, even identifying the baseline recidivism rate is a headache-inducing math problem.

Bret Bucklen, director of the state Department of Corrections Bureau of Planning, Research and Statistics, said he had collected data from Philadelphia jails and state prisons, and police arrest records. Now, he's working on cross-referencing and analyzing the data.

But some early efforts could yield returns soon.

"For every solicitation that comes out for federal grant funding, you need to have a strategic plan, and for many years Philadelphia didn't have one," said Temple University criminal justice professor Caterina Roman.

The coalition is also attempting to give people in reentry a voice in the process. That includes a Reentry Think Tank, now in a pilot phase, comprising 11 ex-offenders and activists based out of the People's Paper Co-op, an artist-founded reentry initiative.

They're creating art and poetry - a sort of collective conscience for the coalition. But they're also offering strategic support, such as consulting with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District on how to address housing challenges in reentry.

More than 85 nonprofits, universities, and city, state, and federal agencies have joined the coalition.

In the long term, the hope is that all providers will adopt a common methodology, providing services that respond to each individual's risk level and unique needs. It's important that services are sufficient - but not excessive.

"Research has shown, if you're delivering the wrong kinds of services to lower-risk people, you increase their chance of recidivating," Tevah said.

"We want there to be a comprehensive system for returning citizens, so that whatever they need, they'll get all the right services at the right time, regardless of where the resources are coming from."