Rebuilding Reentry - an Interview with Karen Lee, CEO, Pioneer Human Services

You are here

Thanks to the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office for interviewing Karen, Lee, CEO of Pioneer Human Services and writing the following on their Facebook page: @kcprosecutor

There were so many hoops to jump through coming out of prison. Karen Lee had an identification card but no driver’s license. She needed to drive to work, but she didn’t have an income from a job to pay for a driver’s license. She was required to submit to regular drug tests which she needed to pay for, but again, where would she get the money to pay for the mandatory tests?

When she missed an appointment with her probation officer, she was sent back to jail for failing to comply with probation requirements.

In reality, Karen never went to jail, or missed an appointment with a probation officer, or needed to submit to regular drug tests. The scenario was all part of a simulation created to help attendees at a reentry symposium understand the significant barriers people face as they transition out of jail or prison.

Karen, the CEO of Pioneer Human Services, says the simulation was real enough to generate stress for her.

“I felt like there was this crushing weight on me, much like a depression,” Karen says of her experience. “I felt like I needed to hustle. I felt this desperate sense of ‘What can I do to get the money?’ The symposium impacted me tremendously as a person who cares about this issue, and it made me understand at a different level what people experience.”

Pioneer Human Services is one of the nation’s largest social enterprise organizations focused on providing counseling, treatment, employment services, job training, housing and residential reentry services to people who were involved in the criminal justice system.

In the years that Karen has led Pioneer Human Services, her knowledge of the science behind criminology has deepened. “I used to think that all we needed to do was just give people a chance, help them get a job, and then they could turn their lives around. What we also need to acknowledge is that there are people in society who have had significant trauma in their early childhoods that has a tremendous impact on them over time. There is also a relationship between addiction and crime, and unresolved mental health issues and crime.”

“With the right intervention, the right opportunities and the appropriate treatment, most people can make better decisions,” Karen says. "In most cases, incarceration doesn't address any of those factors, and it can actually increase a person's likelihood to re-offend."

A week ago, Karen was awarded the Bradley C. Diggs Outstanding Service Award from the nonprofit Washington Appleseed for her strategic leadership and work on reentry issues.

“I have seen firsthand the impact of [Pioneer’s programs] on the faces of each of its graduates who are taking positive steps to improve their lives,” said Angeline Thomas, head of Washington Appleseed as she presented Karen with the award.

“Karen invited me and a small cohort to tour their aerospace manufacturing plant where we got to see how Pioneer can take a work order from Boeing and turn it into an airplane part in less than 8 hours. It was pretty impressive, but what is even more impressive is how Pioneer helps the people who make those parts turn their lives around also.”

Monday, October 9, 2017