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Returning Offenders Reentry Program help reintegrate offenders into community

BRATTLEBORO—Every year, Vermont prisoners complete their sentences and are released back into society.

Some re-offend and land back where they started.

But according to officials with the state Department of Corrections (DOC), fewer former prisoners re-offend when they have jobs, places to live and support networks — things most community members take for granted.

“If they don’t have that support, it’s harder to manage [in their community],” said DOC Commissioner Andrew Pallito.

Vermont’s Re-entry Program and other restorative justice programs help protect former inmates and communities by making reintegration successful, preventing further crimes and victims.

In restorative justice programs, emphasis is placed on repairing the harm created by a crime rather than the laws broken. Ultimately it is about repairing the relationships damaged by the crime through the perpetrator taking responsibility and by asking “What needs to happen to repair the harm?” According to the DOC’s website, restorative justice is part of state policy.

The DOC started its restorative justice programs in 1995 with the receipt of federal funds earmarked for setting up community reparative justice boards and larger Restorative Justice Centers. A few years later when the federal funds ended, the legislature voted to continue funding the programs.

This year, with the introduction of the Legislature’s Challenges for Change, the DOC must cut its budget by $6,028,548. One way the DOC plans to meet this is by granting early release to between 200 and 400 prisoners before their scheduled release dates.

The DOC is turning to its 12 restorative justice centers across the state and its Re-entry Program to help prisoners transition from felons to community members.

The Re-entry Program, modeled on Canada’s, is designed to match returning offenders with a group of volunteers collectively called a Circle of Support and Accountability (COSA) that works in conjunction with the offender’s parole officer and DOC.

“Reparative Probation was a foundational stepping stone to our re-entry practices,” said DOC Restorative Systems Administrator Derek Miodownik.

Vermont’s Re-entry Program

“I was afraid to move [after prison],” said “Eric” (not his real name), who joined the Brattleboro Community Justice Center’s Re-entry Program earlier this year after a 4 1/2-year stint in jail.

Eric committed his crime when he lived on the western side of the state. He was in prison for rape.

“Sorry’s just not good enough. I took a girl’s life and changed it forever. Wish I could change it back,” he said.

He has just finished a weekly meeting with his COSA. He sits looking down, rocking from side to side in an office chair. He said his case worker in prison suggested he join the program.

“They kinda found me,” he said.

He said he initially had a hard time adjusting to life post-prison — what he calls “on the street.” But with the help of his COSA he has a job and apartment. He said he likes his life.

He said people get used to life in prison, where someone dictates when it’s time to eat, sleep or exercise. Navigating the outside world can be a shock to the recently released and they often find it easier to return to jail.

Vermont’s prison population peaked at 2,306 in 2009. According to Pallito, the national and Vermont crime rate over the past 10 to 15 years has stayed relatively flat, yet the prison population has increased.

“There are people in prison who shouldn’t be,” he says. 

He says the corrections system is costly and should be used as a precious commodity.

Some people, he feels, are a threat to their communities and need to be in jail.

Other prisoners, however, can be successfully reintegrated into society and should be because, yes, it’s cheaper and because, in the long run, it’s better for society. Former prisoners who become part of their communities are less likely to re-offend, he said.

He said instituting the re-entry program, and other forms of reparative parole, has shown a 25-percent reduction in re-offences. 

“Understand, in corrections if we see a 10-percent reduction in anything, we celebrate,” said Pallito.

According to Miodownik, in 2003, the DOC received a $2 million grant from the Federal Serious and Violent Offender Re-entry Initiative (SVORI), which allowed the department to begin community-based restorative re-entry programs implemented by the state’s Justice Centers.

The SVORI monies dried up in 2008, said Brattleboro Community Justice Center Director Larry Hames.

Most of the Justice Centers “backed away” from their reentry programs, but Brattleboro, Burlington and Montpelier kept “shell” programs in place. 

The 200 to 400

Prisoners considered for early release this year must be within six months of their release date and not receiving treatment for domestic violence or sexual offenses, said Hames.

Only a “handful” of the people leaving prison will have support from their former communities, he said.

“We can hopefully help maintain people returning from prison,” he added.

Hames said, the department plans to focus on reducing the number of re-offenses through reparative parole, thus reducing the overall prison population.

Once the population is reduced, the DOC will consider closing prisons.

It costs the state approximately $45,000 to house an inmate for one year.

In addition, the state houses Vermont prisoners out-of-state, most in Kentucky, at an average cost of $25,000 per inmate. Although the state pays less to house prisoners out of state, the fee fluctuates, making it harder to budget.

According to Hames, the DOC plans to save $5 million by releasing 200 Vermont prisoners early and bringing 200 out-of-state prisoners back to the green mountains.

With $650,000 in new funding from the legislature funneled to the DOC’s Justice Centers, re-entry programs are getting a “dusting off,” said Hames.

Miodownik said this is the first time the legislature has given money specifically for re-entry programs. In addition, the DOC has applied for federal funds through the Second Chance Act, which emphasizes improving re-entry programs nationwide.

 “No more victims”

Keeping former offenders from re-offending and hurting people within the community is the core of the DOC’s Re-entry Program.

Individuals join the program while still in prison and participate in the program as a condition of their paroles.

Four to five community volunteers, forming a COSA, support the returning offender, called the “core member,” by offering friendship and a safe place for the core member to work through his or her transition into society.

“We use all [available] community partners to plug this person into what they need,” said Hames.

Eric said he likes working with the people in his COSA. They talk about “everyday stuff.”

In jail, he felt people were his friends because “they had to be” and because they wanted something from him. But he feels his COSA members work with him because they want to, asking only for him to say “thanks.”

“It means a lot,” he said.

He said those in his COSA knew the charges against him before they started working with him.

According to Hames, 10 individuals have participated in Brattleboro’s re-entry program. Next year, he anticipates three or four new core members.

He considers Brattleboro’s program a success. So far, all the core members who worked with their COSAs have not committed a new crime, nor have there been new victims.

The COSA holds the core member accountable for his or her behavior through constructive feedback and regular reports to the individual’s parole officer.  Despite community involvement, the DOC retains legal control over and responsibility for the core member.

“We wouldn’t consider someone [for the program] who wouldn’t take responsibility for their actions,” he said.

Conditions of parole hold as true for core members as for any other paroled felon.

For example, in Vermont, prisoners cannot start parole until they have housing in place. If a core member violates parole, the DOC carries out reprimands as dictated by the core member’s conditions of release.

Hames, who sits across a coffee table from Eric, said the COSA has a “no secrets policy” with the DOC. They report any infraction of Eric’s parole to his parole officer. He describes the document detailing Eric’s conditions of release as “three pages long.”

Eric said he meets with a therapist and attends a group where he is learning to change how he thinks and find the cause of his past behaviors.

“I’m learning it’s not okay,” he said.

Hames said learning to trust is the greatest growth he’s seen in Eric since joining the re-entry program.

Eric said he wants to talk about his self and past, “[but] people’s judgment changes when they find out I’m a sex offender. I can’t really express myself.”

Eric calls being a sex offender in society a “double whammy,” because he confronts the stigma of having been in prison and the nature of his crime.

Hames said the COSAs deal with “hard-core” cases. What makes them hard has less to do with the crimes committed as with the fact that the offender has no community support and needs assistance.

Without support, former offenders are more likely to become angry and re-offend. Former inmates also face being stigmatized, experiencing shame and in the long run deciding they have no reason to change their former behavior.

Eric doesn’t think he could ever re-offend.

“I want to be in this COSA. I have too many reasons to stay out of jail. I don’t think I could forgive myself,” he said.

“You’re taking a great deal of responsibility for your daily activities,” said Hames. “Every day you’re out, there’s more to lose.”

Eric smiles. He and his COSA talked about quitting smoking in their meeting earlier.

Hames said to Eric that the COSA is not his mother, father, priest or parole officer, but if Eric is in danger of breaking his community’s standards, “we’re going to be very clear about telling you.”

Hames said communities must take a certain amount of responsibility for reintegrating former offenders into society.

“Allow them the chance to repair the harm they committed. How far can we shrug our duties and feel okay about it?” he asks.

Eric said core members in the re-entry program get out of it what they put in. If he wanted to try and fool his COSA about what he was up to outside the group, the COSA members would notice.

“Being your best takes effort,” he said.

According to Hames, facing the victim is part of the reparative justice process. For some offenders, facing their victims and peers is harder than serving time in prison. 

Eric has yet to face his victim, but expects to someday.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #60 (Wednesday, July 28, 2010).

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