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Ex-Con Rehabilitation Program on Chopping Block

Local Matters


Published November 28, 2007 at 1:37 p.m.

VERMONT - Most of us don't like to hear that a convicted rapist, murderer, armed robber or pedophile is being released from prison and moving back to town. But whether you believe it's society's job to rehabilitate dangerous criminals or just lock them up and throw away the key, most violent felons eventually walk the streets again. And the likelihood that those ex-cons will succeed in becoming safe and productive members of society is often determined by their ability to find housing, jobs and a network of friends and family that can keep them out of trouble.

Unfortunately, the odds of success for Vermont's worst offenders could get worse. On December 31, federal funding will run out on more than a half-dozen local programs that help Vermont's most dangerous felons return to their communities. Since 2005, community justice centers throughout Vermont have used federal grant money from the "Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative" (SVORI) to help former inmates find work, housing, schooling, medical care, substance-abuse treatment and mental-health services.

However, despite broad bipartisan support, Congress has yet to approve of a bill, known as "The Second Chance Act," which would reauthorize that funding. Although the House passed a version of the bill two weeks ago, it's been stalled in the Senate and appears unlikely to move before the end of the year, according to a spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), a lead sponsor of the bill.

"There are a lot of plates spinning on sticks and we don't know yet where they're going to fall," says Dave Peebles, community justice director for the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC). "But one thing's for sure: There are no extra funds."

Governor Jim Douglas has asked the DOC to cut $4 million from its budget, and it's unlikely that the legislature will come up with the $600,000 to $700,000 needed to keep the state's offender reentry programs operating for another year. As a result, Peebles says most of the programs around the state have already stopped accepting new clients and are phasing out their existing ones. And, even if Congress restores the funding before the end of the year, Peebles says it could be as late as October 2008 before that money trickles back to the states.

Vermont's offender reentry programs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but all have several things in common. For one, they all work to reintegrate offenders back into their communities by helping them find stable housing and employment, two key deterrents to recidivism. Second, they all focus on helping offenders forge positive relationships with members of the community. Finally, each one holds the offenders accountable for their crimes and whenever possible helps them repair the harm caused by their offenses.

Marc Wennberg is program coordinator for the Barre Offender Reentry Program. Like several other programs around Vermont, Barre uses a model known as COSA, or "Circles of Support and Accountability." The concept, Wennberg explains, is to surround the offender with at least three community volunteers who begin meeting with the inmate while he or she is still incarcerated in order to help them prepare for life "on the outside."

After the offender is released, those volunteers meet with the offender on a weekly basis, providing help with such seemingly mundane tasks as creating a household budget, opening a bank account and meeting new friends. Oftentimes, those volunteers will also do outreach on their own, such as providing the offender with rides, taking them shopping and cooking meals together.

Over the last two-and-a-half years, Wennberg says his program has also built good working relationships with a number of Barre-area landlords to "set them at ease" about renting housing to former violent offenders. Those landlords "actually look at the program as a benefit because it becomes another layer of accountability for any issue that may come up between them and the tenant," he says. In fact, several landlords who participated in the program have since become volunteers as well, and now work one-on-one with offenders.

Due to its limited resources and the intensive nature of the services provided, the Barre Offender Reentry Program has only served 13 former inmates over its two-and-a-half years. However, only one of those felons has committed a new crime, and it was a misdemeanor, according to Wennberg. And, while several others in the program have been sanctioned for violating the terms of their parole, those violations have been nonviolent and relatively minor.

"One of the things our program provides is consistency," Wennberg adds. "We're consistent when they do well, and consistent when they don't do well."

Part of the success of these programs is that they can offer inmates something they wouldn't ordinarily get from a case worker, prison counselor or probation officer: genuine friendship. Dennis Delaney is a volunteer mentor with the Winooski Offender Reentry Program. He has worked with several offenders over the last three years. Ideally, offender reentry programs work with a client for at least one year.

Delaney says he meets with his offender once a week for about two to three hours, usually over coffee. Sometimes he'll help him search for a job or do his taxes. Other times, he says, the person just wants to sit and talk, and Delaney listens. "It's pretty wide open," he says.

Delaney knows something about the state correctional system. As a retired college professor and former state senator from Chittenden County, he says he's probably visited every correctional facility in the state. "You never see anyone run for political office saying they're going to improve the correctional system," he notes. "There's not a whole lot of public interest in the lives of offenders after they leave, or even while they're in."

There are no statewide statistics on how ex-cons fare after going through offender reentry programs because no one has studied Vermont's numbers.

For his part, Delaney can't say whether his work with Winooski offenders has kept anyone from returning to prison. However, he predicts that if these programs don't get funded again, "That will cost society money" - about $45,000 per inmate per year. "And more than money is the human toll," he adds.