Chesco sees ‘WRAP’ initiative recognized by national organization

WEST CHESTER >> Chester County’s innovative “trauma-based” program for female offenders has drawn accolades from two national organizations for its approach to keeping women out of the revolving door of incarceration.

The Women’s Reentry Assessment and Programming (WRAP) initiative has been recognized by the National Association of Counties (NACo) as part of its 2017 achievements award, and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University recently announced that the program has been listed as a top 25 finalist for the 2017 Innovations in American Government Awards competition.

The NACo award came under the category of Criminal Justice and Public Safety, and will be presented at next week’s NACo conference in Columbus, Ohio.

The Ash Center competition will now move forward without additional consideration for the WRAP initiative, but it did well to be considered among the best work of all such programs from among 500 entrants across the nation.

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“The success of the WRAP initiative can be measured in a number of ways, most notably through the decrease in recidivism and in probation and parole violations,” said commissioners’ Chairwoman Michelle Kichline in congratulating the county’s Department of Probation, Parole and Pretrial Services for the honors. “We also measure improvement in quality of life for the WRAP participants – from living arrangements, finances and spare time to family, social life, friendships and health.”

The WRAP initiative was launched in January 2014 following extensive research to meet the needs of women who have been incarcerated, who were struggling for basic survival or who were lacking in skills to transition back into family life. The program began with 50 women, working with one probation officer trained in motivational interviewing and trauma-informed approaches.

In two years, WRAP has expanded to the current census of 170 women using three probation officers, two full-time community case managers in partnership with Home of the Sparrow and curriculums and tools that address women’s risk factors.

Jennifer Lopez, the probation department’s deputy chief, said the program arose when attempting to address the problems of keeping women from reoffending over and over. Rather than simply punish those who had violated their probation with sanctions, WRAP seeks to address the underlying causes that brought them into the criminal justice system in the first place — child abuse, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol problems.

What Lopez and others in the probation department came up with is the “trauma-informed” approach.

In two years, WRAP has expanded to using three probation officers, two full-time community case managers, and curriculums and tools that address women’s risk factors, one titled “Moving On,” and the other “Self.” Both are offered not only in the county prison, but in the community as well, said Lopez.

The early parole of program graduates has reduced jail time for women by more than 1,500 days. Because of WRAP, arrest rates for women for new criminal charges have decreased by 61 percent since the start of the project, and technical violations of community supervision have decreased by 72 percent.

WRAP was developed with replication in mind and all aspects are easily transferable to any jurisdiction, those involved say.

“Not only is WRAP an effective program, it is also easily duplicated,” noted commissioner’s Vice Chairwoman Kathi Cozzone. “It has been included as a model pilot program for other Pennsylvania counties to follow by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.”

Nationally, the NACo awards are given in 18 different categories that reflect the vast, comprehensive services that counties provide. The categories include children and youth, criminal justice, county administration, information technology, health, civic engagement and many more.

In a news release, Commissioner Terence Farrell said: “Chester County continues to excel in developing and successfully implementing programs that overcome complex challenges. The WRAP initiative is a perfect example of a program that highlights the work of government and community at its very best, and we commend the county staff, agencies and partners who have helped the women of WRAP decrease their number of violations, spend less time in jail and create strong connections to their children, family and the community.”

Lopez said that the issue of how trauma in all its forms affects those who pass through the criminal justice system is now a central part of each probation staffer’s training. The impact differs between women and men, but in its forms it can help deal with the notion of why offenders continue to repeat their past mistakes.

A probation official for 26 years, Lopez has seen the system begin to adjust away from the mechanism of dealing with probation violators simply by locking them up and instead looking towards ways of preventing further crime or violations.

With WRAP, she said, “It was time we needed to start listening to what (women in the system) needed. We didn’t listen in the 1970s, and the biggest thing is understanding the trauma. We started assessing offenders for trauma, and I was horrified by what these woman have gone through. These women have survived. They are resilient beyond belief. The fact that they are still standing and trying to move forward is just amazing.”

To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.