A two-year program that has helped more than 100 former Suffolk County jail inmates find jobs will be extended, County Executive Steve Bellone said.
Suffolk’s “Fresh Start” program, funded by a $489,901 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, expired in December, but Bellone said the program has been so successful that it will continue, with money from the federal government and county.
“It’s been a really good example of how to use federal funding,” Bellone said in a recent interview. “After two years, we have created a model that has helped us be successful in reducing recidivism.”
One of those who benefited from the program is Jessica Chmielewski, 31, of East Northport, who was held in the Riverhead Correctional Facility for two months after being arrested for driving while intoxicated. She was sentenced to 1 1/2 years of probation, and said she chose to speed up completion of her sentence by serving two months in jail.
“It is overwhelming when you are in there,” she said. “You want to get out and do the right thing, but you need guidance. To have somebody who wants you to succeed, that is what you need to move forward.”
The program has not only strengthened families by keeping inmates from returning to jail and turning them into gainfully employed taxpayers, but it also will save Suffolk taxpayers millions of dollars, Bellone said.
New York State had ordered the county to build another facility and add additional beds to ease jail overcrowding, but the state reversed that decision in 2015 after Suffolk launched initiatives to curb recidivism by offering help to low-risk, pretrial inmates who could not afford bail or needed treatment or supervision instead of jail. Programs such as Fresh Start will continue to keep the jail population manageable, Bellone said.
“Investments like this pay off,” Bellone said. “I’d rather help someone get a job than pay for them to go to jail.”
After applying for the federal grant in October 2016, officials appointed two full-time staff members and two part-timers to work with inmates in the county’s Yaphank and Riverhead jails, said Senior Deputy Commissioner Beth Murphy of the Suffolk Department of Labor, Licensing and Consumer Affairs, which administered the program.
Since then, 355 inmates who participated in the program received vocational counseling and were taught how to write a resume, prepare for a job interview and other employment search skills. The participants also were introduced to case managers with the county’s One-Stop Employment Center, which brings together employers and job-seekers. The center also provides job seekers with free suits and other professional clothing they can wear to job interviews. At least 105 of those people received jobs in retail, manufacturing, construction, maintenance and other industries after their release, Murphy said.
“Having gainful employment is one of the factors that can reduce recidivism, and we are fortunate to have Department of Labor staff working with us to improve outcomes for those transitioning from jail to our communities,” said Suffolk Sheriff Errol Toulon, whose office oversees the Yaphank and Riverhead correctional facilities.
Chmielewski said she believes the program is worth continuing. She said Angela DeVito, a county career counselor, helped her prepare a “very professional” resume that landed her a job with a contractor.
“I know I got the job I have because my resume looked so professional,” Chmielewski said. “She typed it up and even dropped it off. I was like, ‘Who does this for criminals?’ ”