In the past, friends would hardly have perceived Republic Committeeman Tom Zeager as a 'reformer' and, indeed when his bishop urged him to undertake a study of transitional housing for prisoners, he initially was unsympathetic to this cause. And then his eyes got opened.
The result a decade later is the expanding not-for-profit Justice & Mercy organization providing guidance and referrals statewide for reintegration into the community for hundreds of clients.
Zeager explained to NewsLanc: "When you are convicted of a sex offense, you are required to have a 'home plan' when you complete your sentence. If you sentence is 2 to 4 years, quite often you are eligible for parole at 2 years, but if you don’t have a home plan you have to max out."
A 'home plan' is a place to live. Finding a suitable location is especially difficult for 'sex offenders' since they may not reside within a thousand feet of schools, day care centers, churches and other locations where children gather, thus ruling out city life.
The category of 'sex offender' can range from the simple act of 'mooning' or a consensual sexual relationship between an 18 year old and a 16 year old to acts as reprehensible as a serial rapist.
"And when you max out, if you still don’t have a home plan, you get released but re-arrested as you exit for not having a home plan and you get taken back to the local jail and charged with failure for not having a home plan" according to Zeager.
Zeager describes his Odyssey in outlook as follows: "My bishop, Dr. E. Daniel Martin, asked me to get involved with John Rush, who had been a prison minister for over 30 years. At first I was unsympathetic and judgmental concerning the accused and the convicted. I felt we had the best court system in the world and no innocent people in prison.
"But I agreed, although skeptical, to spend Tuesdays for six months reviewing what was happening in courts and prison system. At the end of six months we had visited many chaplains in prisons and many homes of past and present inmates from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. I was appalled at how the poor were going to prison too many times for crimes they did not commit.
"I was also appalled by how wealthy people can avoid conviction or obtain shorter sentences through hiring good attorneys.
"And I was aghast at how the criminal system was destroying the very fabric of families that we Americans value so highly."
Justice & Mercy operates its Lancaster office out of Zeager’s Hershey Farm Restaurant. John Rush has been the Executive Director for the past 10 years at the office in Reading. The organization recently started transitional housing in Reading called New Person Center that can accommodate up to 28 men coming out of prison.
The organization also conducts and participates in educational forums across the state and works with public officials, legislators, and other criminal justice and faith-based organizations to improve public policies and practices. Their purpose is to increase public safety and reduce the effects of crime in communities across Pennsylvania. Information concerning its varieties of services is available at www.justicemercy.org .
Zeager says that as the organization has grown, it has obtained credibility and respect. "We are able to meet with just about anybody in the State administration and legislature."
Justice & Mercy recently engaged John Shaffer as a consultant. Shaffer is a former executive deputy secretary of the PA Dept of Correction.
Justice & Mercy is 501(c)3 organization, which allows contributors to a tax deduction. It is currently budgeted at about $250,000. Zeager’s goal is to significantly increase funding to enable expansion of its state wide services.
Contributions may be sent to PO Box 159, Strasburg, PA 17579. Inquiries can be addressed to Jean Bickmire, Administrative Director at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-687-7650l.