Points of View

Calvin Students and Professors Create Resource for Returning Citizens

Sam Stebbins

Students and faculty at Calvin College have developed a web-based application to help those with criminal histories successfully re-enter society. The Returning Citizens Services App is a project of the Calvin Prison Initiative and the Henry Institute’s Civitas Lab.

           

Connecting returning citizens to services

The app allows returning citizens and their families to conduct specific searches for services in their communities. Intended to connect returning citizens to information on a single, comprehensive platform, the app is already in use by many people and has also been incorporated into some returning citizens’ parole plans.   

The Returning Citizens Services app was initially developed to answer the problem of fragmented information. Returning citizens often need access to a variety of services, including help with housing, employment, counseling, or legal assistance.  

Similar tools like this exist in other places but are often limited or defunct. For example, Pennsylvania has a similar map, but one that only lists government services. The goal of Calvin’s app, says Henry Institute Director and Political Science professor Kevin den Dulk, is to “be as comprehensive as we can be.”

However, it can be tricky to find out which services are inclusive of people with a criminal history. The app lists organizations that serve many populations, including returning citizens. For example, the app lists places of worship that are welcoming to those with criminal histories.

        

Improving and expanding the app

The biggest change on the horizon for the project is to expand into more counties and, eventually, to reach the whole state. Currently, the map only covers Kent County, but with students data sleuthing and gathering information, it will soon incorporate surrounding areas.

The project team has additional improvements planned as well. The app was designed with users who may be new to digital tools in mind, as “many have been in prison for a long time, since before the digital revolution. The world has changed a lot,” den Dulk points out. However, despite being designed to be totally user-friendly, there are still some small interface issues to work out. For example, clicking on one pinpoint on the map can be difficult on a mobile device. Soon, the app will be improved to use in a browser on mobile and eventually downloadable from the app store.

“We’re keen on getting feedback from users,” says den Dulk, urging employers and service providers to try the app out for themselves. This helps continuing development in many ways. The more service providers and employers that notice they are not listed and want to be added, the better. Additionally, the tool improves when more connections between organizations are known. For example, a church may have connections to an employer, and refer returning citizens to apply there.

These “hidden services” and linked organizations are important for both returning citizens and employers. “It can be a sensitive issue to include contact info on a public platform,” says den Dulk, but employers can participate without adding their workplace to the map by ensuring organizations they may be linked with are included.

    

Gaining insights

The Returning Citizen Services app can be useful to service providers, too. These organizations can check out the map to refine their knowledge on what they do. Many are eager to be part of the project and on the map so that they can ensure they aren’t redundant if many other organizations near them are doing the same thing, or useful by filling in gaps.

The data collected by the app also helps the project team further their research and see whether there are “service deserts,” meaning areas that are lacking in services for returning citizens. This overlaps with factors such as population density and transportation hubs. “In Kent County, there’s a lot of capacity. The question is whether that is where it needs to be,” explains den Dulk. 

        

What can employers do?

In addition to committing to hiring returning citizens, employers can try the app out for themselves to see if they find it easy to use and whether they have more information that should be included. “We want this to be an innovative app if employers have an idea,” says den Dulk.

    

Special thanks to Julie Bylsma, Jaon VanHorn, and Kevin den Dulk for helping to inform this blog.


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