HARRISBURG — A bipartisan group of state lawmakers and Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel applauded the passage of legislation to establish a public charitable trust to aid children impacted by the prison system and reverse the direction of youth who may be on a path leading to incarceration in Pennsylvania.
The measure, authored by state Sens. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery), Pat Browne (R-Lehigh), Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) and Richard Alloway (R-Adams/Cumberland/ Franklin/York) creates the “First Chance Trust Fund.” The fund will be used to create scholarships and provide grants to programs that benefit children who live in areas with high dropout rates, high incarceration rates and high crime rates.
Initially introduced as Senate Bill 790, the language from the bill was inserted into the Fiscal Code of the 2017-18 state budget, which passed in both chambers of the General Assembly last week and was signed into law by the governor.
“The fund, which would be the first of its kind in the country, will enable youth who are facing challenges to access important programs and educational opportunities that will give them a sense of stability and belonging,” Sen. Hughes said. “This is a solid investment in our children, our community and our justice system and I’m thrilled that it has received bipartisan support.”
The fund will be administered by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and will be paid for by private, tax‐deductible donations and a 1 percent surcharge on vendors that have a contract with the Department of Corrections exceeding $5 million. Other Pennsylvania agencies will also have the option to include a similar provision in their contracts. It does not require the use of taxpayer dollars.
“It is imperative that we look for ways to provide an alternative path for our children who are at a higher risk of dropping out of school or being incarcerated,” Sen. Browne said. “The First Chance Trust Fund provides exactly that avenue to enable Pennsylvania’s most at-risk young people access to programs, services and scholarships that help ensure they succeed both in school and later in life.”
“Providing program funding to keep children engaged and in the classroom is essential to ensuring they do not become justice-involved later in life,” said Secretary Wetzel. “This first-of-its-kind fund will invest significant dollars into programming with the potential to make a life-changing difference for at-risk young people.”
Children continue to enter the justice system at alarming rates. Approximately 65 percent of Pennsylvania state inmates have at least one child, according to the Department of Corrections.
The absence — which some psychologists have compared to the death of a parent — through the formative years can have deleterious effects on a child. Dealing with the emotional, social and economic consequences of that loss can trigger behavioral problems, lead to trouble in school and the possibility of dropping out and continuing the cycle of crime.
“The First Chance Trust Fund was one of the top priorities of mine and the Senate Democratic Caucus in this entire budget process, and we are so pleased to have taken it across the finish line,” said Sen. Costa, the Senate Democratic Leader. “There are 81,000 children in Pennsylvania with at least one parent currently incarcerated; we cannot allow them to fall through the cracks. They already face an uphill battle, growing up without their parents, and the First Chance Trust Fund is something very simple, very common-sense that we can do.”
Initially, the trust fund is anticipated to generate $500,000 to $1 million on an annual basis. The fund would be targeted to regions that have statistically higher high school dropout rates, high risks of incarceration and high crime rates.
“The First Chance Trust Fund will help protect Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable youth from becoming innocent casualties of mass incarceration. We know that dealing with the emotional, social and economic consequences of incarceration can trigger behavioral problems, lead to trouble in school and the possibility of dropping out and continue the cycle of crime,” said state Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia). “I’m thrilled and grateful for the support this legislation received from both chambers across party lines. This is not just a wise investment in our most marginalized communities, it is an innovative way to build community wealth while constricting the school-to-prison pipeline.”