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Pennsylvania 'bank' is a depository for apologies from inmate to victim

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Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

A program that enables Pennsylvania inmates to apologize in writing to victims of their crimes has more letters than people signed up to receive them.

State officials hope to change that by publicizing the Inmate Apology Bank, an initiative of the Department of Corrections and the Office of Victim Advocate.

“It really benefits both victims and offenders,” said Carol Lavery, who has headed the state victim advocacy office for seven years. “Without this program, there is no way an apology could be made. It is a violation for an offender to send an apology letter directly to a victim. That is not allowed, even when one is wanted.”

Since the program started in April 2012, 537 inmates submitted apology letters and 96 crime victims signed up. Officials delivered 26 letters.

Pennsylvania has 51,000 inmates in 26 prison facilities.

Similar programs exist in Minnesota, Vermont, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

“More and more (states) are adding them as time goes on,” Lavery said.

Pennsylvania's program is voluntary for participants. Neither inmate nor victim is told whether the other desires to write or receive a letter before signing up, Lavery said.

“By registering, the victims are expressing interest in receiving a letter,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said.

Officials screen all letters to ensure they are appropriate and apologetic, Lavery said. The communication is one-way, from inmate to victim, with no direct contact. The Office of Victim Advocate has other programs that can help facilitate such dialogue.

Contact with an inmate isn't something every victim wants, Lavery acknowledged.

“There are a lot of victims out there who don't want to know this person even exists, much less receive a letter,” she said.

For those who do, the apology letter program can be beneficial, said Erin Siffing, a victim-offender dialogue specialist with the Center for Victims in East Liberty.

“I think it's a wonderful program,” Siffing said. “It can be a really positive and meaningful thing for victims who want to receive it.”

The Center for Victims operates a similar program for offenders in Allegheny County Juvenile Court and keeps a list of victims who are open to receiving apologies or other dialogue, Siffing said.

“It can be healing for victims and for offenders,” she said.

The Inmate Apology Bank is part of restorative justice designed to help victims and inmates, Lavery said. Offenders have to consider their actions and make efforts toward taking accountability.

Crime victims and their families can learn more about the program by calling 800-322-4472 or visiting www.ova.state.pa.us.

“We first have to have a victim tell us they want to receive it before we reach out,” Lavery said. “I'm hopeful that more and more victims will come forward.”

Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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