Coping With Convicts In The Community

A Lyndon apartment building in Lyndon Center where the Department of Corrections and Northeast Kingdom Community Action previously partnered to house prison inmates on furlough. (File photo by Todd Wellington)

The Vermont Department of Corrections is looking to transition from transitional housing for offenders exiting jail.

The DOC asserts that someone released from jail is less likely to re-offend if that person has a support system and his own apartment rather than spending time in a transitional residence with other former inmates under constant supervision. The plan is to reduce about 90 beds in congregated housing sites throughout the state and instead locate people in scattered residences.

State senators in the Judiciary committee took testimony about the plan this week, hearing from interim DOC Commissioner James Baker about why it makes sense to place people leaving jail back into the community without a stay in a transitional housing site. They also heard from former state senator, Will Hunter, who said moving away from the structure of a congregated setting is the wrong approach.

“I think that the move to scattered site apartments and the loss of 90 congregate housing beds is a real step backwards,” said Hunter. “I think that putting people when they first get out of jail in an apartment by themselves is very hazardous. I’m a strong believer in the value of congregate settings. They all have to do with combining support and accountability, which I think are essential to have go hand-in-hand.”

DOC funding has supported a transitional housing program for those re-entering the community from incarceration since 2005. The department’s website notes the program has partnerships with 18 community providers in the state. They provide 250 beds in congregated settings or individual apartments. Among the providers locally is Northeast Kingdom Community Action, which houses released male offenders at Judd North House in Newport and Judd South House in St. Johnsbury. NEKCA also provides housing for men released from jail in Lyndon apartments.

Commissioner Baker said not every transitional housing option is being dropped, but the new model of favoring scattered sites will make it more likely for a released offender to establish himself and avoid re-incarceration.

He said too many people in the congregate settings are returning to jail because of what he called “technical violations,” which have more to do with the policies of the transitional house program. Baker also said people who complete and leave the transitional house program are without sufficient support to secure permanent housing and often have fewer housing options.

The DOC plan is meant to reduce the prison population by lowering the number of people who are re-incarcerated. Helping released offenders get established independently is seen as a way to accomplish that.

Hunter, who has been involved in community justice work for decades, said the reduction of re-incarceration is possible but unlikely because no one is paying attention.

“Scattered sites may reduce re-incarceration because people don’t get caught, but that’s not fair to the people or the community,” he said.

Hunter said that in a congregant setting there is accountability and structure.

“Who comes by to welcome the person back their first night in the community when they’re in an apartment by themself? It’s the people they got in trouble with when they got out the last time,” Hunter said. “I spend a lot of my time shooing people away who are coming by the houses that I run because they’re not there to do Bible study; they’re there to try to drag people back down. That’s the reality.”

Baker said offenders being released into scattered sites will have plenty of support people to guide them and they will not be left to flounder on their own. He said there will be “wrap-around” services.

Emily Higgins, corrections housing administrator, Department of Corrections, said, “The scattered-site apartments have an entire team who are checking in on those folks.”

Hunter wasn’t convinced.

“It’s all well and good to talk about community partners and connecting people with services in the community, but those sometimes look better on paper than in reality,” he said.

Sen. Jeanette White said she is concerned that the plan to locate more offenders in scattered-site apartments is going to put additional pressure on an already tight housing market.

“There are no apartments,” said White. “Where will these people go because there are no apartments anywhere?”

Sen. Joe Benning, of Lyndon, who serves on Senate Judiciary, said in an email after the hearing that a discussion driven by the number of people in prison is an ongoing and worthwhile conversation.

“It forces us to seriously consider advice we’ve been receiving about how to be successful in reducing the prison population,” said Benning. “I certainly believe that is worthy of our time.”

He said, “I have often wondered about congregating transitional folks because it has been hard to discern whether their remaining with fellow inmates helps or exacerbates the reasons they ended up in prison to begin with. The reality is that each individual is different. But one thing they all eventually face is a return to the community in which they offended. Would they be better served with appropriate contacts in that community where they will need to find jobs and supports, or would they likely gravitate towards bad influences that still exist there?”

Benning said he hasn’t decided whether the DOC shift is the right plan, but he suspects he will side with Commissioner Baker.

“He’s seen everything from all sides and has a good grasp on available resources and the studies that seek to guide the conversation,” said Benning.

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