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Monday, May 16, 2016

Community Plays a Role in Helping Ex-Prisoners (Registered Sex Offenders), Instead of Shunning Them and the Results are Extremely Positive


What a great article (see below), what a great program in Vermont! 

Vermont offers support, guidance, accountability and empathy to its Registered Sex Offenders. 

Whereas in Virginia we continue to expand the restrictions, regulations and barriers which not only isolates our RSO’s but leads to arbitrary violations costing the State more money and time…. and for the RSO…. a new conviction. 

Vermont’s system is preventing future crimes while assisting the RSO’s to become contributing members of society. 

Virginia’s system has nothing to do with assisting our RSO’s in becoming contributing members of society…it labels, restricts and regulates our RSO’s……… period. 

That’s the difference between a system based on hope, success and proven process compared to a system based on punishment, anger and vengeance.  

It’s not being “Soft on Sexual Predators” its being smart in reducing crime and recidivism rates.  

Why can’t Virginia see that? 

Mary Devoy 

 

Community plays a role in helping ex-prisoners, May 15, 2016
By Gina Barton

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Whenever Travis Papineau's parents left town, things went wrong. He logged onto the internet and did things he shouldn't. He got drunk, then got behind the wheel. He acted like a delinquent teenager, even though he was a grown man. 

He always ended up back behind bars. 

A registered sex offender, Papineau had been in and out of prison for years. But this time, he had a plan.

And he had friends: Community volunteers he'd been meeting with every week for three months, since he'd last walked out of a cell in January 2015.
 


Alone in his parents' house, the phone seemed to weigh 100 pounds. Papineau forced himself to pick it up, punch in the number. 

Mary Mullaney answered, as she had promised she would. For the next 90 minutes, she stayed on the line.

And the demons fled.
 

The Vermont way 

Papineau, 32, is among more than 200 people who, after getting out of prison in Vermont, have participated in a re-entry program known as Circles of Support and Accountability. Each Circle contains an ex-offender, a coordinator and a handful of volunteers who work with parole officers, landlords, employers and therapists to prevent high-risk sex offenders and violent felons from committing new crimes. 

Several communities around the nation, including Madison and the Fox Valley in Wisconsin, have adopted versions of the Circles model. But all of them lack a critical element that makes Vermont's effort so successful: a statewide network of community justice centers — funded by the Department of Corrections — that marshal volunteers and resources to help keep former prisoners crime-free. 

Vermont's program, which began in 2005, doesn't only benefit ex-offenders, those involved say. It also increases public safety. Research backs them up. Preliminary results of a University of Vermont study show that just one in 30 sex offenders involved in Circles was reconvicted of a felony, compared with roughly one in five of those not involved — a reduction of 86 percent. For violent offenders who had not committed sex crimes, the reduction was 80 percent. 

"By treating people like they are not disposable, you are actually helping to reduce victimization," said Kathryn J. Fox, a sociology professor who co-authored the study. 

In addition to helping with basic needs, Circles tackle another problem: the tendency for former prisoners to fall in with their old crowds — and their old criminal behavior. 

The initiative aims to replace those groups with responsible, caring people who can help ex-offenders fit into law-abiding society. 

Longtime volunteer David Santamore sums it up this way: "If somebody goes to jail and comes back into the same situation with no support, it's like rescuing somebody drowning, drying them off and then throwing them back in the river." 

Community gets involved 

Circles of Support and Accountability got its start in Canada in 1994 when a notorious pedophile named Charlie Taylor got out of prison. 

The morning after Taylor was released, all the schoolchildren in the region of Ontario where he would be living found 8x10 photographs of him on their desks. 

The teachers warned: If you see this man, call the police. 

In one of the classrooms, a little boy raised his hand. 

I've seen him, the boy said. He was at my house for dinner last night. 

The boy's father was a Mennonite minister. He'd heard Taylor was being set free and had made a decision: To keep the community safe, the community had to get involved. 

The minister, Harry Nigh, recruited members of his congregation to befriend Taylor. 

Robin J. Wilson, a clinical psychologist who co-authored the University of Vermont study with Fox and research assistant Megan Kurmin, was working for the Canadian government at the time. 

Initially, both police and citizens were outraged that anyone would welcome a child molester into society, Wilson said. But with time, people realized that engaging with Taylor and others like him could help ensure public safety. 

Within 10 years, the project had expanded throughout Canada. 

"Finding a place in the community to be and to positively associate are incredibly important elements of building a balanced, self-determined lifestyle free of risk to re-engage in harmful behaviors," Wilson said. 

Ex-offenders involved in Circles, he continued, "learn that there can be people who care about them, which leads them to care more about themselves and, by extension, others." 

Taylor remained crime-free until his death in 2005. 

Healing expands 

Vermont's program grew out of the state's long history with restorative justice, which teaches that victims, offenders and communities all need to be healed after a crime occurs. 

John Gorczyk, who served as commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections from 1991 to 2003, is credited with bringing the concept of restorative justice to the state. 

One of Gorczyk's first steps when he took over the department was to hire a market researcher. 

"It's like being a CEO," he said of the commissioner's job. "I thought it was important that we get a better handle on exactly what the people of Vermont wanted from justice and corrections." 

The research showed that only 37 percent of people viewed the corrections department favorably, according to Derek Miodownik, the department's restorative and community justice executive. As for what they wanted from offenders, the public did not express a need for punishment, he said. 

Rather, they wanted offenders to acknowledge their guilt, accept responsibility and commit to being crime-free. On the flip side, respondents wanted the corrections department to provide safety for the public as well as accountability and treatment for offenders. They also wanted everyday citizens to have a role in the administration of justice. 

The first step in fostering that involvement was the implementation of community reparative boards, in which volunteers worked with low-level offenders to help them understand the impact of their crimes and to make amends. 

Then, in 1998, the corrections department partnered with local governments and nonprofits to set up the community justice centers. The centers, originally funded with federal grant money, are neighborhood organizations that work with ex-offenders and area residents to repair the harm done by crime. 

"If you want justice, you have to have a phone number to call, someone to talk to," Gorczyk said. "We were trying to move all of justice into the community." 

Numbers dwindle 

As a result of Vermont's smaller population, lower crime rate and more liberal criminal justice policies, far fewer people are incarcerated there than in Wisconsin. On any given day in Vermont, about 8,300 people are under community supervision by the Department of Corrections. In Wisconsin, there are about 67,000. 

The Vermont legislature voted to make restorative justice a statewide policy in 2000, and lawmakers have consistently increased funding for it over time. 

Today, there are 20 community justice centers around the state of Vermont. Their annual budget stands at about $2.5 million. That includes a $600,000 increase for fiscal year 2016, designated specifically to sustain "restorative reintegration services" such as Circles. 

Wisconsin's truth-in-sentencing laws, meanwhile, are among the toughest in the nation. And while some criminal justice leaders here, including Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, have embraced the concept of restorative justice, its implementation has been much more piecemeal. 

Through Chisholm's office, some offenders participate in community conferencing groups, where they discuss their cases with the victim, a facilitator and a community representative. The parties may ask each other questions, which often leads to emotional insight. 

For inmates at the maximum-security Green Bay Correctional Institution, restorative justice takes the form of a program called Challenges and Possibilities, which aims to help them change their behavior by understanding its impact. Volunteers include victims of violent crime, who share their stories with the offenders. 

Nonprofit organizations such as Goodwill Industries of Northeastern Wisconsin and Madison-Area Urban Ministry facilitate Circles in Wisconsin. For fiscal year 2015, the state Department of Corrections' support for Circles totaled about $250,000, which was allocated toward the Goodwill effort, according to spokesman Tristan Cook. The state's total budget for re-entry services that year was $11.6 million. 

Some of the Wisconsin Circles function like support groups, in which a number of ex-offenders come together weekly to talk among themselves and with volunteers. 

In Vermont, each Circle contains just one former prisoner, and only sex offenders or felons at high risk of reoffending are eligible. Probation and parole officers screen potential participants, who are then interviewed by justice center directors. 

Once selected, the ex-offenders commit to meeting with their teams at least once a week for a year. The group can continue meeting beyond that time if all agree. 

In addition to meetings, volunteers can provide transportation and help with simple tasks that may be unfamiliar to longtime prisoners, such as using a cellphone or deciding which groceries to buy. 

At first, Circles are an artificial means of support, said Susan Wells, a probation and parole officer who supervises 45 sex offenders in Vermont. 

"But then they develop trust. If you've been in jail for a long time, you are really rusty, at best, in how to make a good decision. The group is there to help them figure it out." 

Finding strength 

Throughout Vermont, Circles are deeply integrated into the release process. 

Two key strengths of Vermont's approach are assistance with housing and close coordination with probation and parole officers, according to Fox, the University of Vermont researcher. 

Based on the preliminary results of her most recent study, Circles seem to be most effective when used with sex offenders. 

"But I don't think it has anything to do with sex offending; that's my theory," she said. "I think it has to do with the fact that they tend to be the ones who tend to be more socially isolated. They have more restrictions. They have more desperate conditions. They just have a harder life." 

Sex offenders subject to lifetime registration are barred from public housing anywhere in the country. That challenge is magnified by the fact that cities and towns often place additional limitations on where they may live. 

In Milwaukee, for example, an ordinance passed two years ago bans registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of any school, licensed day care center, park, recreational trail or playground. As of January 2015, all but 55 residences in the city were off limits to them. 

Housing is an issue in Vermont as well, especially for people on the sex offender registry. Finding somewhere to live is the motivation for many ex-offenders to apply for Circles, Fox said. Community justice center officials build relationships with landlords, who in turn agree to rent to Circle participants because they have extra supervision. The program also may provide temporary housing or short-term loans for rent and security deposits, which former prisoners can repay through volunteer work. 

Some participants in her study, Fox said, disengaged from the group once they had a place to live. But others embraced their Circles. 

"Over time, they saw the benefit later with these other relationships," she said. 

Finding partnership 

Cooperation among Circle members and parole officers is another essential element of the program.

"If the parole officer sees it as a partnership and appreciates what the (Circle) can do that they can't, and they have good communication, that's when it works the best," Fox said. 

For example, the parole officer can't socialize with the former prisoner or take him shopping. And while Circle volunteers have more frequent conversations with the ex-offenders, they can't keep secrets from the parole officer or from each other. 

"The people in the ... program understand that we won't worry alone and we won't keep secrets from one another," Wells said. "That keeps everybody on the same page." 

Usually, after a conversation with his team about breaking a rule such as drinking or using a computer, the ex-offender (known as the core member) ends up calling the parole officer on his own. If not, the coordinator, who is employed by the community justice center, makes the notification. 

If the violation isn't a crime and doesn't put the community at risk, the parole officer and the team may work together to fashion an appropriate sanction, Wells said. Those might include writing an apology letter, attending additional therapy sessions or wearing an ankle monitor. 

Otherwise, the offender can be sent back to prison. 

Yvonne Byrd, director of the Montpelier Community Justice Center, recalled one core member who made troubling comments at two meetings in a row. His coordinator called the parole officer, who in turn called the police. 

"They went to his apartment and caught him before he did anything and he went back (to prison) and he's still there. That's not a bad thing," Byrd said. "What I tell people is: 'You need to know that if you're planning to get out and try to get away with breaking the rules, you're more likely to get caught if you're in our program.'" 

A dose of karma 

Accountability also includes more subtle things, such as calling out lies, offering reminders of positive choices and getting a feel for the core member's mood when things go wrong. 

For example, at a recent meeting a core member told his team he'd been robbed the day before — and he was pretty sure he knew who was responsible. 

"Did you have to talk yourself down from getting really angry and wanting to go after the guy you thought did it?" asked Alfred Mills, re-entry specialist at the Montpelier Community Justice Center and coordinator of the team. 

In the old days, the man would have gotten a crew together and beaten up the guilty party. But now, after six months of meetings with his Circle, he just shrugged. 

"It's like karma," he said. "A kick in the pants for all the stupid stuff I did in the past." 

Mills later followed up: "How do you feel about your own judgment right now?" 

The reply was encouraging: "I feel really good. I know what I want. I know what I'm doing." 

What kind of person would sign up to spend time with a sex offender or a violent criminal? 

Many are retirees, according to Fox. Others are ministers or people who see such service as a religious calling.

All lean left on the political spectrum. 

"They already possessed a critique of the criminal justice system and already believed the criminal justice system was too punitive," Fox said. 

Extensive training teaches volunteers how to set limits, such as not giving the core member money. 

The training also aims to tap into empathy for former prisoners. 

One way to do that is by discussing all the rules core members must live by. For example, they can't drink, so blowing off steam by having a beer with friends isn't an option for them. Many are not allowed to drive, so they can't easily head for the mall or the mountains after a hard week. 

The training prioritizes security. For example, one team with safety concerns convened its meetings in the community room at the police station. 

In the 10 years of the Vermont program, no core members have victimized volunteers on their teams, Byrd said. She credits both the screening by the parole officers and the small number of program participants. The Montpelier justice center, where she works, operates eight Circles at a time — the largest capacity in the state. 

"We're not naive," Byrd said. "People have risk areas. Someone who is a pedophile probably isn't a thief, isn't addicted to substances, probably won't take your money or your purse, and may be nonviolent in every other way.  

We know their profiles and we know where their risks are." 

Katy Knuth, 34, who works at a restaurant and is a partner in a perfume business, has served on three teams so far.

As one of the younger volunteers and a single woman, she keeps clear boundaries, rarely meeting with ex-offenders one-on-one. But she's almost always up for group outings with her current team's core member, whom she has grown to genuinely like. 

"That's pretty wild," she said. "Never did I think I'd be going bowling with a registered sex offender and laughing and having fun." 

Making strides 

Last July, about three months after making the phone call from his parents' empty house, Papineau moved into his own apartment. He's still saving up for a car, so he rides his bike to work at Dunkin' Donuts, where he is entrusted with the responsibility of opening the shop in the morning. 

He has been meeting with his Circle for 16 months. 

"He's made some strides he's never been able to accomplish," said Wells, his probation officer. 

Both she and Papineau credit his team with helping him do that. 

"I have no friends. I have my family and that's it," Papineau said. "These are people who weren't my family who I could talk to. ...It's widening my social circle some." 

Since that first phone call, Papineau has gotten used to reaching out when he needs help. 

Not long ago, he was feeling down on himself after a particularly difficult therapy appointment. Afterward, he biked to the home of one of the volunteers on his team. They watched "Shaun the Sheep" and laughed like crazy.