How This Ex-3rd Circ. Judge Is Helping Former Prisoners

By Jack Karp | November 18, 2022, 8:01 PM EST ·

Former federal Judge Thomas I. Vanaskie was instrumental in building two reentry programs for formerly incarcerated people, and he's still helping their participants rejoin society even after leaving the bench.

Thomas I. Vanaskie

Since Vanaskie, who served 16 years as a district judge in the Middle District of Pennsylvania before sitting for eight years on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, left the bench in 2019, he has spent much of his time helping former prisoners reintegrate into society through a pair of reentry programs he helped create.

Vanaskie was one of the driving forces behind both the federal Court Assisted Re-Entry, or CARE, program and Pennsylvania's State Transition Reentry Incentive Validating Endeavors, or STRIVE, program, he told Law360.

Both programs offer job and housing assistance, mentorship and support to those being released from prison, as well as educational, behavioral and financial help from several private institutions, according to Vanaskie.

"It's tough starting your life over. And it's not in anybody's interest for them not to be able to start over," Vanaskie said about the participants in these programs.

Former prisoners in Pennsylvania's STRIVE program, which was officially launched earlier this year, meet monthly with one another and a team — of which Vanaskie is a member, now as a private citizen rather than a judge — to help reentrants set goals, discuss obstacles and share advice.

"I tell them, dream big. Maybe you won't make it all the way, but let's put a plan together," Vanaskie said.

In addition to that help, one of the program's more unique attributes is that it connects former prisoners with private entities that provide them with educational opportunities, behavioral health assessment and treatment, and financial support, according to Vanaskie.

Northampton Community College, for example, offers reentrants job and vocational training and employment counseling. ESSA Bank & Trust provides financial literacy training and low-interest loans to program participants. And Pyramid Healthcare assesses those entering the program for mental health and substance abuse needs and provides treatment during the program, Vanaskie said.

Vanaskie, along with attorney Albert R. Murray Jr., was instrumental in getting the STRIVE program off the ground, pitching it to the state's governor and meeting with its Department of Corrections to sell them on the idea, he said.

STRIVE is currently a pilot program operating only in Lackawanna County, but Vanaskie is hopeful it will be expanded.

"I was thrilled we were able to open up on the state side," Vanaskie added. "We tried long and hard to find a way to make it happen."

One of the reasons he tried so hard to get the program started was the positive impact he saw a similar federal program have on former federal prisoners, he said.

The Middle District of Pennsylvania's CARE program, which then-District Judge Vanaskie also helped launch in 2009, served as the template for the state STRIVE program, according to Vanaskie.

Similar to STRIVE, the CARE program helps those leaving federal prison successfully return to society by giving them additional resources and assistance.

Some of the same private entities involved in STRIVE are involved in CARE. And CARE participants, who can reduce their period of supervised release by a third if they complete the program, meet monthly with a team that usually includes a prosecutor, public defender, probation officer and judge.

When the program first launched, those meetings took place in court, with Vanaskie presiding from the bench, he remembered.

"And it didn't take me more than two sessions of that to realize that's not the way to get people to open up and talk to you," Vanaskie said. "Nothing good ever happened in a courtroom."

So the program was relocated, with reentrants and team members now sitting together around a table. The STRIVE program works the same way, and Vanaskie credits that change with allowing reentrants to better share their stories and experiences.

"These meetings we have, the participants open up, they let us know what problems they may be encountering; they're looking for advice," Vanaskie said. "And I think more importantly, they're looking to know that there are people out there who really will try to help."

The former judge, who is now of counsel at Stevens & Lee PC, is not shy about pitching in to help.

When one former prisoner in the STRIVE program was being wrongfully threatened with eviction, Vanaskie called some of his contacts and managed to get the eviction notice rescinded, he said.

He also helped secure pro bono legal assistance for another reentrant appealing the state's rejection of his application for a barber's license. The man was eventually granted his license on appeal, and he now has his own shop, according to Vanaskie.

"Those kinds of things happen, and you can see you're making a meaningful difference," he said.

Vanaskie's wife has even joined in, teaching one former prisoner to parallel park in the couple's car so he could earn his driver's license.

Offering that kind of help to the formerly incarcerated is vital if they are to successfully rejoin the community, since it can be incredibly difficult for those released from prison to start their lives over with a felony conviction on their record, Vanaskie pointed out.

Former prisoners face obstacles finding employment and housing, can be barred from receiving certain loans or financial assistance, and often have to comply with numerous conditions of supervised release that can include curfews, electronic monitoring and fees.

As a result, 66% of high-risk offenders will return to prison within six months of being released, according to the CARE program.

"I've always believed in redemption, and this was a way to do something about it, instead of talking about it," Vanaskie said. "Actually do something about it."

Vanaskie was first drawn to helping people in that situation while serving as a district court judge, where he often sentenced criminal defendants.

"Part of the problem for me as a sentencing judge was you would sentence somebody and wish them well, and I always wanted to know what happened to them," he said. "Did they do well or not? Sometimes you find out because they appear in front of you again, but oftentimes you didn't."

So he helped start the CARE program at the direction of then-Middle District of Pennsylvania Chief Judge Yvette Kane. There were very few examples of similar programs at the time, so Vanaskie and his colleagues had to pretty much invent the program from scratch, he said.

The former judge continued to help run CARE after he was elevated to the Third Circuit and kept attending CARE meetings even after leaving the bench.

He now regularly participates in STRIVE meetings and works with reentrants in that program.

"I realized that a lot of the individuals, the reentrants, they weren't bad people. They made bad mistakes, undoubtedly, and bad mistakes that had adverse collateral consequences for others," Vanaskie said. "But they just needed some help."

Both programs have been successful in providing that help, according to Vanaskie. But they've been less successful winning backing from state and federal governments.

Many courts around the country are now operating programs like CARE and STRIVE, but they're doing it on their own, with little to no official or financial support from the U.S. Department of Justice or the court system, Vanaskie said.

As a result, those running the programs often put in long hours to make up for a lack of staffing, according to Vanaskie, who remembers being at the courthouse until late at night meeting with reentrants.

"We need to get the word out more," Vanaskie said. "We've got to get the word out to those who control purse strings so that more resources could be put into something like our programs."

Programs like these are important to ensure that those leaving prison have a chance to be successful, an effort the former judge remains dedicated to despite being busy in his newer role chairing Stevens & Lee's appellate and mediation, neutral services and alternative dispute resolution practice groups.

"I didn't want to be just a talker," Vanaskie said about his pivotal role in both reentry programs. "I wanted to be a doer, to provide some assistance, even if it's a little assistance, anything along the way that could help."

--Editing by Marygrace Anderson and Lakshna Mehta.

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