KENNETH P. WILKINSON: A RETROSPECTIVE
I met Ken when he first came to Penn State, but, I didn't get to know him until our interest in offenders and the criminal justice system brought us together. It was our interest in the role of the community and the offender's integration into the community that linked us; at first as volunteers, later as employer and employee.
In the mid 1970s many local families and individuals were confronted with teen drug use, concern about the failure of the criminal justice system to impact crime, and a desire to heal the wounds that crime creates in our communities. It was clear to some people that prisons weren't working, and that we didn't want our children or friends in those prisons. Ken agreed.
At the beginning of that decade, area families and individuals took a direct, active approach to solving community problems. Simply -- when a problem appeared, they took it on, personally. If an ex-offender couldn't find housing, a family or individual provided it. When youth were thrown out or left their homes -- other families took them in. If a judge wanted to put local teens in jail for drug use, community members testified on their behalf. We used a direct people to people approach. We were responsible for community members.
But times changed. The need increased as awareness increased, and gradually, agencies and organizations replaced the original families and individuals. Community Alternatives in Criminal Justice (CACJ) was one of those organizations. Ken, other Penn State staff and faculty, and community members started CACJ in 1976. They started it because they felt strongly that there is a place for the community in the criminal justice system. CACJ was not only a town-gown effort. It also was the joining of a religious community that would join again over other issues in the years that followed. The purpose of CACJ was to provide community programs as alternatives to incarceration. Ken felt strongly that CACJ programs not be a part of the criminal justice system. CACJ's programs were designed to work in the community, in partnership with the court.
The first programs were a community service program and a re-entry program. Community service is used as a sentence option and preferably as an alternative to incarceration. With a community service sentence, offenders are sentenced to provide X hours of volunteer work as a form of community and/or victim restitution, and as demonstration of offender responsibility. Again, the role of the community is emphasized. The offender comes from a community and repays that community. The community connection is maintained or rebuilt, or in some cases, established for the first time.
Reentry is a program designed to work with exoffenders as they return to the community. Ken, other Board members and some of Ken's grad students did the work. Ken found the first community service placements. He assisted exoffenders to re-make a home in the community. Ken helped find housing and jobs and provided a listening ear when needed. He and all CACJ Board members used a direct personal one-on-one approach. They treated each ex-offender as an individual.
The programs worked. They were accepted by the community and by the court. CACJ was a success and hired staff in 1978 to run the community service program. Ken and CACJ board members and volunteers (some were Ken's grad students) continued to work with the reentry program by finding jobs, clothing, providing transportation, and sometimes money.
Ken supported CACJ whenever and whereever it was needed; working with the court to assure that the programs met CACJ's intent -- to be community programs -- but to be useful to the court system.
Besides the work, Ken also provided the theory and research support behind the programs. One of Ken's research interests at that time was rural crime; I remember him traveling to Montana to talk with offenders and to gather data. His expertise and hands-on experience gave credibility to our agency.
In 1979, I was hired as coordinator of the Community Service Program. While I was there, Ken was the president, the treasurer, and my supervisor, sometimes all three at once, sometimes two of three. Rarely did Ken have one role, one task. Ken was always available. There was never a problem for which there wasn't a solution. Ken had enough experience with offenders to know what to do and what not to do. His theoretical and research background, coupled with practical experience, gave CACJ believability in the eyes of the community and the court.
On a personal level, Ken was one of the most non-judgmental persons I've ever worked with. Although, he may have thought he was being manipulated by either the court or an offender, he did not respond in anger. Sometimes he trusted an exoffender who wasn't trust worthy, but he learned and shared that learning. He was able to laugh at his mistakes. It was as simple as that. His learning and laughter gave us all needed realism and experience. Ken continued the programs as he knew they should be, and we all learned.
By the early eighties, CACJ programs were a success in the community and with the court. Organizations throughout the community asked to use court ordered volunteers. The volunteer-offenders were pleased with the program. Many offenders established relationships with their placement agencies that lasted beyond the sentenced hours. Some lasted for years.
In addition, the religious community was involved with CACJ. The Quakers were most heavily involved financially. In succeeding years the Unitarians contributed volunteer mediators and Board members to CACJ. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting provided much of the initial start up money for CACJ, both for the community service program and the mediation program. Rose Cologne was our contact with the Yearly Meeting. The University Baptist and Brethren Church also was involved. The Church contributed the office space, free, for decades. Only in the past year or two did they begin to charge a nominal fee for building use.
As a measure of its success, CACJ received the Benjamin Rush award in 1984. In large part, this award was because of Ken's contributions. Ken insisted that the programs met standards and were held accountable.
Ken received CACJ's first Council for Human Services Volunteer Award. Again, because Ken did whatever the agency needed to have done by supporting his staff, by serving as president, treasurer, or by making a difficult presentation to court personnel.
CACJ grew. It added a Mediation Service and a Bail Supervision Program. The community service program became so successful, the court took it over. Ken retired from the CACJ Board in 1990, but he continued to send information on programs similar to the ones he started to the current Director. In 1992, Ken was named the People's National Bank Golden Choice Volunteer of the Quarter. He designated CACJ as the recipient of the monies from that award.
As the most recent acknowledgment of the value of community-based services, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law in 1990 creating Intermediate Punishment as a sentencing option for the courts. I interpret Intermediate Punishment as another name for community-based services. This state, as well as many other states, is now recognizing what Ken knew almost two decades ago -- service as an alternative to incarceration works, and frequently works better for the offender and the community. Ken left many friends in State College and some of those friends have taken his place on the Board of CACJ. They accepted Ken's challenge: to find and develop programs that keep the community as a part of our institutions.
In reviewing old news articles, I found a 1979 picture of Ken and I with the local chief probation officer. Ken looked like a hippy from Mississippi, but, one serious hippy. NO ONE was going to mess with his programs.
Today I not only continue to work with the criminal justice system, I'm part of that system. I miss Ken. He would help to keep me separate from the system. He helped to keep my perspective on the community and my links with the community strong. He would provide the balance so necessary for a person who is on the inside. Most of all Ken would remind me that the offenders that I work with are people. People who are part of a community, and need to be returned to the community, with the help of the community. Also, he would remind me that programs are not only teaching an offender about his or her community, but also giving the community a chance to know and find value in the offender.
In closing, I'd like to say that it's always fun to work with someone because they are ahead of their time, and because they are right. But most of all, it was fun to work with Ken because he was gentle, soft spoken and always, always available.