(Courtesy photo; photo has been cropped)
Two years ago to the day, hundreds of juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania learned they could have a second chance at life on the outside.
The Montgomery v. Louisiana U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that the national ban on life-without-parole sentences could be applied retroactively, thus invalidating the life sentences of over 300 Philadelphians — some of whom are still awaiting resentencing today, and some of whom have already returned home.
But what happens to those folks once they get there? It’s likely that most of them won’t remember how to use the bus system. So how are they supposed to find resources like housing, employment, education?
That’s where Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project’s (YSRP) new online tool comes in. The Pennsylvania JLWOP Reentry Navigator (that’s “Juvenile Life Without Parole”) is a digital portal where returning citizens, their loved ones and advocates can search for resources in categories such as behavioral health, case management, public benefits, life skills training and 10 more.
Users can also fill out a form about their needs and be matched with resources personalized to where they are in their reentry process (i.e. if they haven’t yet obtained a state-issued ID or if they’ll be returning to a community corrections center).
Total, the navigator features detailed information about 730 resources after YSRP volunteers vetted “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of resources in all of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania,” said YSRP cofounder Lauren Fine. The tool was developed by Philly design shop P’unk Ave, which donated a portion of staffers’ time over the past year.
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While the platform could be used by any returning citizen, resources such as life skills training and senior services are targeting specifically to juvenile lifers, and resources such as, say, veterans services aren’t included. The layout is also clean-looking and easy to navigate and features large fonts to accommodate older or less tech-savvy users.
Fine said the org consulted juvenile lifers, both in prisons and post-release, as well as family members and other supporters, while forming the app.
“People were really honest with us and shared the kinds of things they were nervous about or had questions about or wanted to know more about” related to reentry, Fine said.
Of course, one glaring potential issue with the platform: Most juvenile lifers have never used a computer.
Fine acknowledges this challenge but said YSRP considered an online navigator to be more accessible to people across the state than printed versions and incorporated feedback from former juvenile lifers through the navigator’s development about its ease of use.
The platform is also “responsive,” meaning it works on a tablet or smartphone, which returning citizens are more likely to acquire post-release than a laptop.
“We’re definitely aware of challenges of learning technology when you haven’t been exposed to it for so long,” she said. “But our hope was that this was as easy as possible for folks coming home.”
Fine said she hopes other states will replicate this model for their own returning populations.
A prototype for a similar program, Mission: Reentry, was formed at a reentry-themed hackathon hosted by Code for Philly and the Reentry Project this past fall. The navigator reminds, too, of Youth Matters Philly, a resource map for youth in the foster care system.-30-
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