Unlikely Mentors give Felons Hope by Kevin Johnson

Posted: July 14, 2010 in News and politics
 Enlarge By Adam R. Bird for USA TODAY
When James Churchill was released from prison, Lt. Ralph Mason told him that if he kept clean during his parole, he would find him a job. Both have lived up to their ends of the bargain.

Seeking Solutions is an occasional series on city, state and grass-roots efforts to solve some of the USA’s long-standing societal problems.

 Enlarge By Adam R. Bird for USA TODAY
Lt. Ralph Mason with the Grand Rapids Police Department, works with ex-offenders to help prevent recidivism during a lunch meeting at Reentry Village, in Grand Rapids, Mich.

    By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
    GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — James Churchill was nearing the end of a 10-year prison term for armed robbery last year when he struck an unusual bargain with an unlikely partner.

    If Churchill, a career criminal at age 34, could stay out of trouble during his first months of freedom, police Lt. Ralph Mason pledged to help find him a job.

    The collaboration between cop and criminal in a state with the nation’s highest unemployment rate is remarkable and so far, successful. Eleven months after his release, Churchill has been employed for nine months — without incident — by a industrial plumbing company, earning up to $21 per hour.

    Churchill says he was "shocked" by Mason’s help, but the officer’s intervention is a sample of the untraditional methods Michigan officials are using to help ex-offenders re-enter society and slash troubling rates of those who return to prison. As communities across the nation struggle to assimilate about 700,000 ex-offenders who leave prison each year, according to the Justice Department, local Michigan officials are recruiting doctors, clergy, business leaders and even police as mentors to help keep them out.

    At a time when crime is at historic lows in many parts of the country, former offenders’ successful re-entry into society is among the major challenges facing the criminal justice system. Nationally, nearly 70% of all offenders are re-arrested within three years of release, and 50% return to prison over the same period, Justice Department records show.

    The numbers are "daunting," says Jim Burch, acting director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, which will oversee $165 million in grants to communities nationwide to help former offenders make the transition. So far, the U.S. government has distributed $28 million to try to cut recidivism by 50% during the next five years.

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    The legislation and a sluggish economy — which has forced states such as Kansas, Michigan and Tennessee to shutter prisons and increase the ranks of offenders on parole or probation — have injected a new urgency into efforts to end the costly careers of habitual offenders.

    "It will take some time before we see change across the board," Burch says.

    Yet, four years into the Michigan experiment, known as the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative (MPRI), the program is producing some promising results. The project, based on intensive intervention in all aspects of life, begins before release for offenders who state officials believe pose the highest risk of committing new crimes and returning to prison.

    Statewide, the rates of ex-offenders sent back to prison have dropped from 55% to 38% since the program started, says John Cordell of the state Department of Corrections.

    In the program’s western Michigan region, which includes Muskegon, Oceana and Ottawa counties, just 11% of the program’s 713 participants have been convicted of new crimes or committed parole violations that have sent them back to prison, says John Arnoldi, Muskegon area parole manager.

    "After years of just warehousing humans, it was time to go in a new direction," Cordell says.

    He hopes the $56 million the state pays yearly for the program will be recouped by savings from a reduced prison population.

    "We had to step up with some creative solutions," adds Yvonne Jackson, the program’s coordinator in Grand Rapids. "In the end, we’re going to see 97% of these people back in our communities. We need to be prepared."

    Life on the edge

    It is a simple lunch: a foot-long deli sandwich, a few bags of chips, soda and a box of chocolate-chip cookies. But it’s not the cuisine that draws this unusual group of convicted felons — including a murderer, two robbers and a sex offender — along with community leaders and police to a common table.

    For the ex-offenders, some just months removed from decades spent in prison, the weekly sessions in a spartan conference room offer needed support to help them in an often frustrating return to life on the outside.

    The meal is, in many ways, a reflection of the promise and peril of the Michigan project.

    To a person, the seven convicts gathered here on a recent day talk hopefully about landing decent-paying jobs and apartments, reconnecting with family and finding paths away from addiction and trouble.

    They say they are grateful for a program that includes counseling and assessments of their needs 60 to 90 days before their release. Once they are out, they receive services tailored to those needs, from temporary housing, bus passes and gasoline cards, to addiction counseling, mental health treatment, job leads and clothing suitable for job interviews.

    Around the table, there are celebrations of small victories — a first paycheck, a new driver’s license or a long-sought high school diploma. There also is tough love for those who lapse. Convicted robber David Oliver, 55, confessed that he spent part of the Memorial Day weekend in a local jail after getting drunk and stealing a lawnmower. He gave the mower back, but a judge will decide whether the infraction will cost him his freedom, again.

    "You owe everybody in this room an apology," says Ross Hayes, 52, released 11 months ago after serving 35 years for murder. "What you did reflects on all of us."

    Oliver’s setback is a reminder of the group’s vulnerability. Of the seven offenders at the lunch, only two have landed full-time jobs. (The unemployment rate for ex-prisoners in some regions of the state runs as high as 80%, says Roxanna Hartline, a program monitor in Ottawa County.)

    Collectively, the group has filed more than 150 job applications. In all but a few cases, the employers never responded. Some of the challenges, however, run much deeper. Russell Fox, 41, convicted of sexual contact with a child and released three months ago after 12 years in prison, says that because of his crime, living with family members wasn’t an option after release.

    Under the terms of his parole, he must carry a GPS device at all times so his parole officers can track his whereabouts. He cannot use the Internet and must remain 500 feet from parks and 1,000 feet from schools, severely restricting his work and housing options. Too bulky to strap to his leg or wrist, the black GPS box he carries is a constant reminder of his crime.

    Grand Rapids Police Chief Kevin Belk is a wary supporter of the program. He thinks it’s promising, but worries it could be overwhelmed by a state prison system that is "letting far too many" high-risk offenders out because of budget pressures.

    The case of repeat offender Gabriel Hood, 33, underscores the stakes. While on parole in March, Hood — previously convicted of assault, armed robbery and drug charges — was shot to death by a Grand Rapids police officer after he allegedly pulled a gun on the officer during a traffic stop.

    Belk says the down economy also is likely to make success harder to achieve in the long-term. "Where I think we can make a difference is penetrating the sense of hopelessness by making our people available to them (former offenders) before they get in trouble again.

    "It’s much better for everybody to form these partnerships than to pretend they aren’t coming back at all," Belk says.

    ‘Time to try something else’

    The idea of providing help to prisoners returning to communities is still is "very new," says Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, which promotes alternatives to incarceration.

    In part because of the economic meltdown, Mauer says, a hardline philosophy focusing only on harsh punishment has gradually changed. Stateshave slashed prison budgets, forcing criminal justice officials to intensify their efforts to keep former criminals out of jail.

    "The traditional approach just wasn’t working," says A.T. Wall, director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. "The appetite to spend huge amounts — hundreds of millions of dollars — dried up. On top of that, the outcomes were not good." (By 2007, Wall says, 46% of prisoners released from state prisons and jails every year were back within 12 months.)

    "It was time," the director says, "to try something else."

    Like the Michigan program, Wall says Rhode Island officials are now working with offenders up to six months before their release. The program includes instruction on such basics as personal appearance for interviews and how to handle potential employers’ questions about their criminal records. Wall’s advice: Be honest.

    Wall has bought into the philosophy in a very personal way.

    He says he was genuinely surprised when former inmate Andres Idarraga, who served six years for cocaine and weapon possession charges in Rhode Island, approached him in 2007 with a unusual proposal: Would the director consider writing a letter of recommendation for his admission to Yale Law School?

    After leaving prison, Idarraga earned high grades as an undergraduate at the University of Rhode Island and Brown University. For Wall, a Yale law graduate himself, the decision to get personally involved still wasn’t easy.

    "I recognized there was a risk in this," the director says. "My reputation and credentials are very important. Those are things I did not want to squander."

    A series of breakfast meetings followed. Wall ultimately concluded Idarraga "was exactly who he presented himself to be: a thoughtful, bright young guy who was motivated to succeed." Wall wrote the letter and helped set up a meeting with officials at Yale, where Indarraga, 32, is now a second-year law student.

    "It’s a humbling experience," Indarraga says.

    In Michigan, Grand Rapids police Lt. Mason, too, made a difficult decision to get involved.

    "I’ve had my years kicking in doors; I’ve had a partner killed," he says. "But I also have a best friend who has been to prison three times. I know people can change."

    During a visit to prison prior to Churchill’s release last year, Mason says he was impressed by the offender’s "serious" demeanor, despite a criminal record that began at 14 with the theft of a car, followed by gun possession and drug convictions. "He told me he was grateful to the judge who gave him 10 years (for the armed robbery of a gas station), because it could have been 40. I just knew he was sincere."

    Still, Churchill says he was "floored" when Mason called just two months after release with a lead on a good-paying job at a friend’s plumbing firm, which was willing to provide training.

    Richard Ortega, the former offender’s boss, says Churchill is one of the company’s hardest workers, well-liked by all 40 employees. "I trust him completely."

    Churchill, who lives with his grandmother, is slowly assembling a new life. He is building a relationship with his 11-year-old daughter and saving for a car.

    "Everything is coming in small steps," he says. "I figure the harder I work, the more things will come. I just have to take it slow."



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