March 15, 2018
PHILADELPHIA—The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is using modern technology to solve an age-old problem.
As the state with the largest number of juvenile lifers – inmates sentenced before they turned 18 to life without parole – Pennsylvania faced a serious challenge when the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that life sentences for juvenile offenders were unconstitutional.
The 518 juvenile lifers themselves had not been thinking about planning for a life after prison – many have been imprisoned for decades – so preparing them for release is more complicated than for many other offenders. And the prison system's release preparation program wasn't ready for so many new releases.
In response, the Department of Corrections implemented a series of programs to help ease juvenile lifers' re-entry into society, including classes, training and – in 2016 – virtual reality. As of February 2017, 105 juvenile lifers had been released, and many of them had a chance to take a tour of their new homes via VR headsets.
The department's goal is to reduce the likelihood of these inmates returning to prison, a problem that can be triggered by struggles to readjust to society, said Daniel McIntyre, director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Community Corrections. According to the Federal Bureau of Justice, more than half of state prisoners return to prison within five years of their release.
"Our goal in corrections and everywhere else is to change people's life and provide community safety," McIntyre said. "And that's accomplished by changing behavior of the people that we supervise and manage. They've made mistakes, [but] you have to believe they want to change."