Research: Another view of re-entry centers’ role in communities

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Nothing like controversy to return a common predicament to the forefront: How to reintegrate ex-cons.

It’s a scary word, isn’t it — ex-convict? TV evokes images of hardened criminals, but oft-repeated statistics confirm that most of today’s “ex-cons” weren’t convicted of violent crimes. Some are misdemeanors and most are drug-related — with the majority of those not major dealers peddling to schoolchildren, but users and addicts.

Addiction is all too familiar to the average American extended family, yes, including our own.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that since 1990, an average 590,400 inmates are released annually from state and federal prisons, with about 5 million under some form of community-based supervision. The number of Americans incarcerated grew steadily for nearly three decades thanks to the “war on drugs.”

Per capita, the U.S. still has more prisoners than any other nation.

Since 2008 we’ve seen a gradual decline, as we seek answers. Courts, corrections officials, social workers and legislatures, as well as a special council created by President Trump, are working on the problem of re-entry, starting with the basics everyone needs:

A job. A bed. The stability to support a responsible life.

Few people are put away forever. According to BJS, more than 90 percent are released eventually. So when the debt is paid they, their families, and communities face a conundrum: How to reintegrate into a society that resists them.

Case in point is this newspaper’s coverage about Kootenai County as possible locus for Idaho’s next community re-entry center (f.k.a. halfway house).

A CRC is more than a bed and big brother. It provides accountability, treatment, job-hunting skills and support services. The idea behind re-entry centers is that with transitional support, newly released offenders have better odds of creating a stable, sustainable life outside prison. Otherwise, the odds of returning to old problems make reoffending and bouncing back to prison a lot more likely.

According to the Idaho Department of Correction, CRCs serve two main purposes: Allowing offenders to work while reconnecting with family and community, and protecting the community with higher accountability and security.

Former Kootenai County inmates are returning to the community one way or another. A transition phase works better than simply opening the door and hoping it’ll work out, knowing the odds are against it.

A BJS study on recidivism showed that within five years of release, nearly 75 percent of ex-offenders re-encounter the criminal justice system, and more than half returned to prison. Compared to the average American, ex-offenders are less educated, less employable (thus more likely to be homeless), and more likely to have a history of mental illness or substance abuse — all risk factors for recidivism.

That’s no good for anybody.

Without a transition that addresses these underlying problems, the risk of community rejection and recidivism — committing more crimes — is high. Beyond monitoring and (temporary) shelter, CRCs typically include access to treatment programs, guidance, support, employment help, and community service. IDOC already has re-entry centers in Nampa, Boise, Kuna, and Idaho Falls.

In Kootenai’s case, what’s being proposed would house local, “primarily minimum custody offenders.” Custody classification is an inmate ranking according to the risk they present to themselves, other inmates, staff and the community. “Minimum custody offenders” means those deemed low-risk and eligible for work release.

The “not-in-my-backyard” response to this CRC proposal might be shortsighted. The local, low-risk inmates it would help transition more effectively into the community would likely still be here, just without the job training, drug rehab, and other support that help make them responsible, safe, and successful citizens. Which serves not only them, but the community — and it saves the more expensive judicial processing and incarceration if they reoffend.

Even though CRCs are meant to benefit the community as much as former offenders, discussions surrounding them tend to drown in rumor, fear, and falsehood. That’s understandable; security is paramount to all of us and there are never guarantees. The issues are complex and easily confused or distorted.

Fear is always eager to take over, but it blurs vision.

The irony is that unless we do something proactive to address the problem, especially in this community growing at lightning speed, our “backyard” is more likely to see higher levels of the big city crime/drug culture we’ve tried to avoid. Not to mention cycles of crime, punishment and broken families.

That’s the inevitable result of a society that fails to temper justice with mercy, or at least common sense and self-interest which, in this case, argue in favor of the same result. We have to find a practical solution.

•••

Rather apropos of today’s weird word: Boyg — a formless or pervasive problem.

•••

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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