Faith-based groups, businesses and members of the public from eastern Liberty County had a chance to learn about a proposed prison re-entry program during a meeting Monday at Wilderness Baptist Church in Midway.
The proposed county model essentially would mirror Gov. Nathan Deal’s Criminal Justice Re-entry Initiative, which was launched in February 2014 and is overseen by Jay Neal, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Re-entry.
The program would help parolees and recently released felons assimilate into society by providing viable employment opportunities and, on occasion, temporary housing for those exiting the prison system and entering the local community.
The first stakeholders meeting was held last month with several members of the Liberty County Board of County Commissioners in attendance, as well as Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas. During that meeting, Probation Officer Michele Freeney-Washington outlined the steps necessary to implement the county plan. The first consisted of the formation of a steering committee, gathering employment, educational and housing-resource partners and crunching the numbers for the proposed budget that would be necessary to fund the two full-time positions needed to run the program.
The proposed budget would be presented to the Board of Commissioners, who ultimately determine the re-entry program’s funding, to see if they can pay the two salaries.
In Monday’s meeting, Freeney-Washington reported the program is closer to being ready for implementation now that a steering committee has formed, several community partners and faith-based groups are in place and the committee has crunched the numbers for the two full-time positions.
The steering committee thinks the program would require about $100,000 to fund the two positions.
County Commissioners Chairman Donald Lovett was in attendance Monday, as was Commissioner Gary Gilliard. Both emphasized the need for the steering committee to finalize their proposals in time for the June commission meeting, where the final county budgets will be discussed and finalized.
Lovett hinted funds for the two positions would come from the budget already allocated to the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office.
Gilliard and the group in attendance agreed that hardest aspect of returning to society is finding gainful employment.
He said the county recently adopted Deal’s Ban the Box initiative, which prohibits the use of a criminal record as an automatic disqualification for prospective state employees, except in applications for what is classified as sensitive governmental positions.
Gillard added that he thinks the city of Hinesville will soon follow suit, which might pave the way for local employers to do the same — opening up potential jobs in the community for recently released or paroled inmates, a necessary and vital component for the success of the program.
There is a federal bonding program available to companies willing to hire former felons that serves as an insurance policy should there be an incident with a parolee or released individual, officials at the meeting said.
Another area that still needs more resources revolves around housing. Steering-committee member Warren Waye said his group has reached out to local real-estate agents to address the housing issue as well as public-housing options. Currently, the city’s Homeless Coalition and the Kirk Healing Center for the Homeless are involved in providing temporary housing in conjunction with the re-entry program.
Dr. Alicia Kirk, founder of the Kirk Healing Center, mentioned the need for more funding to expand current available housing during the first stakeholders meeting last month.
Kirk and several members of the Kirk Healing Center’s board met with Dr. George Lee and Robert Simmons, who oversee the re-entry pilot program in Savannah. That meeting, held April 1 in the Hinesville Room of City Hall, provided Kirk and her board members information regarding possible state grant funds they could apply for to expand their current housing.
Kirk Healing Center grant writer Irving White said he was in the process of applying for those funds.
Lee explained some of the parameters required for the program, including how many people were allowed per room and meal requirements.
According to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, participating housing providers will be compensated at a rate of $600 per month for up to three months, for a maximum total of $1,800. In return, the housing provider must provide room and board without charge to the parolee.
Funding for this program is made available by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles through the Georgia Department of Corrections’ State Criminal Alien Assistance Program.
Monday’s meeting concluded with White announcing that the final stakeholders meeting would be held May 18 at the Justice Center. The time will be announced at a future date.
During the final meeting, the steering committee will provide the timeline, budget and finalized plan, which it will then propose to the county commissioners to kick off the program. Once the county program is implemented, it would qualify for state funding.