Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Prisoners have way to say 'sorry' with Pa. program

by BARBARA MILLER (Washington) Observer-Reporter on October 13, 2013 1:50 AM

WASHINGTON — With little fanfare last year, Pennsylvania’s Office of Victim Advocate began a program with the state Department of Corrections and recently renamed the endeavor the Inmate Apology Bank.

The voluntary program provides an avenue by which crime victims can receive an apology from their offender without having direct contact.

Between April 2012 and August of this year, 537 inmates have submitted apologies to the clearinghouse, and 96 crime victims have registered with the program.

The apology bank received one letter from an inmate from Washington County, and, as of recently, none from anyone from Greene County, according to the Office of Victim Advocate in Harrisburg.

“By registering, the victims are expressing interest in receiving a letter if one is submitted by the offender. Twenty-six registered victims have received an apology letter,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in a news release.

“I had never heard of that,” Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone said of the letter-writing program.

“Sometimes defendants express remorse in court.”

The program has been operating pretty much under the radar, so Vittone is not alone.

“We’ve never publicized until now, unless you were personally getting information from us or stumbled across it on our website,” said Carol Lavery, commonwealth victim advocate, who also is responsible for representing the rights and interests of crime victims before the Board of Probation and Parole.

Judges normally order as part of a sentence that defendants have no contact with the victims of their crime, so the letter clearinghouse allows them to comply with the court’s intent because it does not involve direct contact.

Prison officials, along with employees of the Office of Victim Advocate, inform inmates about the program and how to go about writing their letters.

Inmates may write to the program, where victim-advocate staff members screen the letters for appropriateness and then file them until a registered crime victim indicates that he or she is interested in receiving letters from the offender.

The correspondence is one way, from the inmate to the crime victim.

When an inmate takes time to consider the actions that led to his or her incarceration and puts those thoughts into words, those who work on behalf of crime victims hope the process plays a role in the inmate’s rehabilitation and is a step to accountability.

According to the Office of Victim Advocate website, “The only benefit an apology letter would have for an inmate would be personal growth and insight.

“Writing an apology letter does not affect his or her conditions of incarceration, nor will it shorten their sentence or affect their release date.”

From a crime victim’s standpoint, the letters can provide answers to questions not addressed at the trial or sentencing.

“Not every victim wants to receive a letter. For some victims it is upsetting to dredge up the memories of the crime,” Lavery said.

“The letters are carefully screened by Office of Victim Advocate staff to ensure the inmate is not engaging in blaming the victim or any other inappropriate type of context.”

Throughout the process — whether they receive letters or not — crime victims are counseled by OVA staff.

Crime victims interested in this program can learn more by visiting the Office of Victim Advocate website at www.ova.state.pa.us, click on “DOC Inmates,” and then on “Inmate Apology Bank,” or by calling (800) 322-4472.

Online: http://bit.ly/GN8vcJ

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