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Project for convicts wins 'Oscar'

| Wednesday, July 27, 2005, 12:00 p.m.

An Allegheny County program that helps mentally ill state prisoners reintegrate into society has won a prestigious Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The award, often called the Oscar Award of government service, is to be given to the Allegheny County State Forensic Program in a ceremony today in Washington, D.C.

The honor comes with a $100,000 grant to expand the program and to teach other groups around the nation about how to start similar ones.

"The program demonstrates that you can help people with mental illness whom many people would write off," said Marc Cherna, director of the county's Department of Human Services.

There were more than 1,000 applicants for the award, and the Allegheny County program was one of five winners.

Started in 1999, the forensic program pairs Allegheny County natives serving time in state prisons with counselors as the inmates approach the completion of their maximum sentences.

Then, as they return to Allegheny County, counselors continue to help the former inmates find housing, counseling, services and jobs in an effort to prevent them from committing new crimes.

"People want assistance, especially if it is done in the right way with respect," Cherna said.

The more than 300 inmates treated in the program have had a recidivism rate of about 10 percent, Cherna said, far below the national average of 61 percent for individuals released from state prisons who have mental health problems.

"When compared to the national average, it's easy to see how this program is changing lives, changing attitudes and saving tax dollars," said Stephen Goldsmith, director of the awards.

Cherna said it costs about $3,000 to help each client in the program annually, compared to imprisonment costs of more than $20,000 a year for each inmate.

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