Senate Bill 790, 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), would create the “First Chance Trust Fund,” which would be used to create scholarships and provide grants to programs that benefit children of incarcerated loved ones and children facing challenges.
The trust fund would be administered by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and would be funded 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 would also have the option to include a similar provision in their contracts. It would not require the use of taxpayer dollars.
The lawmakers, along with Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, highlighted the importance of this legislation during a news conference today at the state Capitol.
"This legislation will give organizations the ability to provide children who face challenges with more educational opportunities to help them stay in school, give them a sense of stability and belonging, and protect them from going down the wrong path," said Sen. Hughes, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "It's a wise investment that will help children, families, and the community."
“I am pleased to join my colleagues in introducing this important initiative aimed at providing our young people most at risk of dropping out of school or ending up incarcerated with scholarships and resources that may otherwise not be available to them in an effort to help ensure that they succeed both in school and later in life,” said Sen. Browne, Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
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 and risks of incarceration.
The fund, which would be the first of its kind in the country, will enable youth who are predisposed to the criminal justice system to access programs they need to complete school and become healthy and productive members of society.
“Children deserve a chance to grow and thrive and dream about what the future holds,” said Costa the Senate Democratic Leader. “These programs – programs that recognize the potential that lives within each child, each family and each community are evidence of the opportunity we have to make a difference. When we invest in our kids and focus on their future, everyone wins.”
“I am very pleased to join with Governor Wolf, Secretary Wetzel, and fellow legislators to take this major step in providing at-risk youth with the tools that they need to succeed,” Sen. Alloway said. “This trust fund, which is unique in the nation, will provide targeted grants and scholarships at no cost to taxpayers. This program will be a model for states across the country and I am excited to play a part in assisting our neediest of youth.”
Children continue to enter the justice system at alarming rates. Additionally, there are more than 81,000 Pennsylvania children with a parent in a prison, and 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.
“This legislation will be a game-changer for the many children with parents in Pennsylvania prisons,” said Secretary Wetzel. “We know that not finishing school is very often the first step in the downward spiral that leads to incarceration. We need to ensure that these vulnerable children instead have a ‘first chance’ to get the education, programs and support they need for success.”
Representatives and students from two organizations that work with at-risk children participated in the news conference and highlighted the benefits of investing in programs that are providing children with a “first chance.”
POPS (Pain of the Prison System) the Club, located at Steelton-Highspire High School, offers students who have been impacted by the pain of the prison system — those with incarcerated loved ones and those who have been incarcerated themselves — with community and emotional support, as well as opportunities to publish the writings and artwork they create through the club.
"Any initiative that places an emphasis on our youth is critical to the future success of our world. Programs such as POPS shed a light on incarceration and the struggles associated with children and families when a loved one goes to prison,” said POPS art teacher Jennifer Morrison. “POPS breaks the stigma and gives children an opportunity to heal, learn and grow from the experience through creative writing and visual arts. By creating ways to fund programs like this we can ensure that students who may face a hardship do not become defined by their circumstances."
Amachi Pittsburgh provides children impacted by incarceration and children facing challenges with a different path by establishing the consistent presence of loving, caring mentors. The initiative partners with secular and faith-based organizations working together to provide mentoring to children.
“Tens of thousands of young people in Pennsylvania will go to bed tonight while one of their parents goes to bed in prison. And many are worried whether they will also end up behind bars in the future,” said Anna Hollis, executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh. “This groundbreaking legislation provides an innovative vehicle for children impacted by parental incarceration to have a viable first chance at a bright future, and for that, Amachi Pittsburgh commends Secretary Wetzel and our bipartisan state senators for advancing such a monumental effort."