Lebanon County Commissioners received some good and bad news at Thursday’s biweekly meeting.
The good news is that they approved the Adult Probation Grant-in Aid application for fiscal year 2021-22 in the amount of $81,527, which is earmarked to help pay personnel costs.
“The amount that is being offered this year matches what we’ve received in the past few years,” said Audrey Fortna, director of Lebanon County Probation Services. “As in years past, we plan on utilizing this to offset the costs of personnel for the fiscal year.”
The bad news is that the commissioners were informed that the Renaissance Crossroads program will cease operations in Lebanon County at the end of 2021.
Renaissance Crossroads is an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment program in Lebanon County that works within the criminal justice system to allow offenders to receive drug and alcohol treatment in place of incarceration.
In existence for 20 years, the rigorous 34-month program, which is funded by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, was a major success in Lebanon County. A LebTown article from August 2020 noted the program had 165 “graduates” of the 248 men who had participated.
“Judge Tylwalk and I were talking a little bit about it yesterday and it is really a big loss,” said Jamie Wolgemuth, chief clerk/county administrator. “But we’re the last ones to see it go. The program it was modeled after in 2000 or 2001 went by the wayside only five years after we started and we’ve been (going) 15 years longer.”
Wolgemuth noted that the program is, in part, a victim of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic since Pennsylvania Counseling Services (PCS), which administers the program on behalf of the county’s adult probation services department, is having difficulty finding staff.
“They are having difficulty in staffing and the funds have been cut over the years, and all of this has sort of combined to see its end,” said Wolgemuth.
Wolgemuth asked Fortna what alternatives will be provided to program participants who are still in treatment.
“As far as the future for the participants, we are working with the Crossroads staff right now to come up with individual recommendations for each and every person that best suits them,” said Fortna. “I am hoping that some will be directed towards the DRC (Daily Reporting Center).”
Fortna noted that some men have been in Renaissance Crossroads, which is housed at the Lebanon VA Medical Center, for “a very long time,” and added that one is ready to graduate next week while others have completed at least one year of their sentence.
“However, there is one individual who was just sentenced in July of this year, and so he’s really not spent much time in the unit,” said Fortna. “So that particular case is going to require more thought as to what the appropriate level of care will be moving forward. But we are dedicated to figuring out the best plan moving forward.”
Fortna said her department will continue to be involved in court sessions to provide individual assistance in transition after sentencing.
“We will try to keep that team compliment, as a treatment team, to discuss each case as we try to develop the best plan of action and we want to continue to do that moving forward until we feel that everyone is stabilized and where they need to be,” said Fortna. “It’s unfortunate. As you said, we’ve been very lucky to have this for 20 years and we’re kind of a dinosaur, or a unicorn, but it’s a very different type of program and we’ve struggled with numbers, unfortunately.”
Fortna said changes over the past 10 years complicated operation of the Renaissance Crossroads program.
“We’ve been jumping through hoops and making some changes and trying to keep the numbers up because we believe in the program,” said Fortna. “Unfortunately, after COVID hit and the staffing issues on top of the numbers, it just is not doable.”
The staffing issue was in the technical staffing department, according to Fortna, which required employees to be onsite at the VA hospital 24/7 since participants live there full time.
“They’ve been requiring people to work overtime just to keep shifts covered and they’ve not had any luck in filling those (vacant) positions,” added Fortna.
Wolgemuth credited PCS for making adjustments during the past 10 years to keep the program, which was funded via a $500,000 grant that was passed through the county, alive. He noted that PCS absorbed funding cuts over the years because “they also believed in the program.”
“Yes, they’ve been fantastic to work with,” said Fortna, in response to Wolgemuth’s comment about PCS.
Renaissance Crossroads was created in 2001 by then-President Judge Robert J. Eby in cooperation with the district attorney’s office and the county’s adult probation department to provide an alternative to placing people with addiction issues in prison.
It was also noted that changes in the state’s criminal codes, in many cases requiring an offender to serve less than 34 months in prison, also contributed to fewer offenders opting to enter into the rehabilitation program.
“People are no longer looking at longer state sentences so now the program is now longer than what they would face in jail time,” said Fortna. “We did talk about adapting and we did make some adaptations over the years. We were just in the process of making more adaptations to it when this all developed.”
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