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Criminal Justice

Walking in their shoes: Simulation gives hard look at life after incarceration

Simulation line
Jay Bradley
Participants line up to get an "ID" during the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute's simulation on Tuesday.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A simulation gave just over 50 attendees Tuesday a hard look at what it is like to reenter society after incarceration.

Participants had to balance regular needs for rent, food, transportation, and probation check-ins while facing the difficulty of earning money reliably when they needed a new ID, and lacked an income and sometimes housing after release.

Local officials like Northampton County District Attorney Stephen Baratta, Easton City Councilwoman Crystal Rose, Lehigh County Commissioner Dan Hartzell, and Northampton County Controller Tara Zrinski were present, along with other government officials and nonprofit representatives throughout the region.

The office of Pennsylvania Eastern District U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Romero and the nonprofit Lehigh Valley Justice Institute led the event, held at the Executive Education Academy Charter School on Union Boulevard.

Stephen Baratta LVJI
Jay Bradley
Stephen Baratta, while role playing, went to the blood donation station while desperate formoney

"We're hoping that this exercise will build some empathy," Romero said.

"It'll expose people to reentry in a way that they've never been exposed before. They're literally walking in the shoes of a reentering citizen. And I'm sure we have people from all walks of life here from the medical field, legal field, housing, etc.

"When they encounter people in real life who are reentering society, they might have a different viewpoint."

She said she hopes the simulation, which uses a set of tools developed by her office and has been replicated for students, law enforcement officers, incarcerated people, and other groups within the district, can both increase public safety and lower recidivism rates with the public's help.

"I can and will lock up people all day long for committing crimes. But I need assistance out in the community to help reentering citizens get past barriers successfully and not end up back in the prison system," Romero said.

Jay Bradley
US Attorney Jacqueline Romero speaking to the crowd

According to a 2022 state report, Pennsylvania’s three-year overall recidivism rate has hovered around 64% for the last 16 years.

Joe Welsh, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, says he hopes people can have more understanding of the process — and be more forgiving when it comes to dealing with those released, given the pressures on them right away after they leave incarceration.

"We hope that that will make better-informed policy decisions, because we're looking for better outcomes from the criminal justice system," Welsh said.

The simulation is similar to one run last year by the Justice Institute in partnership with Northampton Community College, which was attended by two members of the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners.

Late last year, Lehigh County commissioners passed a bill to ease the transition for those leaving the Lehigh County Jail, making it easier to get an ID right as they leave the facility.

"The fact of reentry in the simulation, and people understanding the challenges that you go through in life and what's really expected of you, it really makes a difference to bring a different perspective for people to understand how hard it is, and the challenges you can go through."
Luis Perez

"I was a true believer to begin with. So you're kind of preaching to the choir here. But it's making it more clear than ever before," Lehigh County Commissioner Dan Hartzell said.

"In fact, I'll be honest, that might be part of the problem is people here, you are preaching to the choir. You know, the question is, and this is the hard thing, how do you reach the ones with the attitude that 'Well, if they wouldn't have got in trouble in the first place, they wouldn't have been in jail, and they wouldn't be in this situation.'

"So how do you reach that? That's the difficult part. Gotta just keep trying."

Hartzell and others noted the feeling of being overwhelmed and not being sure what the right path forward was while role-playing their individualized character.

"You get screwed," he said. "They tell you to go one place, and they tell you, 'Oh, no, you need this.' And then you go to the other place, 'Oh, no, you need something else,' and you go to the third place. And now you need someone else to go back to the first place. And there's a line everywhere. And you're under this deadline. It's just not going to happen. You're not going to be able to do it."

Character Sheet Reentry Sim
Jay Bradley
A character sheet given to participants, detailing the character they are to role play as

Luis Perez, a board member of the Justice Institute and executive director of the community organization ReciproCITY, attended. As someone who was incarcerated and had to go through it all in real life, he said, it was good to see people start to understand the challenges.

"The fact of reentry in the simulation, and people understanding the challenges that you go through in life and what's really expected of you, it really makes a difference to bring a different perspective for people to understand how hard it is, and the challenges you can go through," Perez said.

"And some of the things you can't complete or you can do or can't do."