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Programs assist ex-inmates

Two of five offenders released from Washington state prisons in 2006 are expected to be locked up again by 2011.

About half of those returning to prison are expected to commit a property crime. A third will commit a crime against another person. And about 15 percent will commit a sex-related crime, according to a November 2006 state Department of Corrections study.

Two new state programs in Washington aim to attack that recidivism problem by providing services people need when they’re released from jail. The belief is that people who have safe homes, jobs and access to drug, alcohol and mental-health counseling will be less likely to reoffend.

“The way the system works right now is almost programmed for failure,” said Steve Cervantes, executive director of Northeast Washington Housing Solutions. “They release you at midnight with no place to go. If you’re in that circumstance, it’s about survival and you do what you need to survive.”

Spokane County programs received a combined $4 million in state grants recently, and the county hopes to begin assisting recently released offenders here this spring.

“Every one we keep from reoffending means one less victim out there, and that’s what keeps me going,” said Jack Lilienthal, a counselor and clinical criminal justice specialist with Goodwill Industries in Spokane.

Goodwill will provide case management and support services in partnership with Northeast Washington Housing Solutions (formerly Spokane Housing Authority) and Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs to serve 50 newly released men and women who are at high risk to reoffend.

That partnership will act under a grant of about $895,000.

People being released from jail “have to be in need of housing assistance,” said Gheorghe Turcin, a community re-entry specialist for the Department of Corrections in Spokane. “We don’t know how we are going to select the offenders yet, but we are putting that together.”

This is roughly how it will work, according to Cervantes: Offenders will be taken to transitional housing, where they will be connected with caseworkers. When people move to permanent housing, a portion of the rent will be subsidized, but that could decrease as people begin working. Landlords will notify other residents and the community of the new residents. The housing authority plans to house the offenders away from schools and other places frequented by children.

“It’s not easy … it’s going to be a learning experience for us,” Cervantes said. “If we’re going to err, we want to err on the safe side.”

In the past, the Department of Corrections has provided housing vouchers for poor inmates being released from jail, but that program ended last summer. Last year, the state Legislature directed the state department of Community, Trade and Economic Development (CTED) to create programs to address the problem of released offenders at risk of homelessness.

The other grant, for $3.2 million, was awarded to Spokane County through the Homeless Grant Assistance Program. With that money, the county hopes to assist up to 200 people yearly for three years, said Christine Barada, the county’s director of community services, housing and community development.

Barada said the program could launch in the fall. The goal is to have inmates meet with caseworkers prior to their release to evaluate their needs, then connect them with housing providers, counselors and job training.

Barada said the more holistic approach is a shift from a fragmented system now. “What we’re hoping to do is tie them all together so there’s complete support and a much higher level of success.”

The Department of Corrections study showed that, statewide, 42 percent of inmates were returning to prison. Of those people, 58 percent did not receive any type of treatment while they were out, 85 percent were unemployed and 34 percent did not have stable housing.

Spokane County’s grant application estimates that 500 inmates who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless are released every month. At least one or two of them stop by the House of Charity, a nonprofit homeless shelter for men, nightly, saying they were just released from jail and had nowhere to go, the application said.

Both Spokane programs are modeled somewhat on a federally funded project that lasted from 2002 to 2006 called “Going Home.” Lilienthal said that during that project, Spokane had the highest success rate in the nation, percentage-wise, in preventing recidivism.

At that time, some in the community expressed concern about the money and services being devoted to rehabilitating lawbreakers, Lilienthal said.

“They called it Hug-A-Thug,” he said.

But he added, “Here’s my answer to that: Every time we help somebody get a job and find stability, it means one less victim. Secondly, it costs roughly $28,000 to incarcerate someone for a year.

“To me, it’s a cost, both financial and emotional, that every time we can avoid it, it’s worth it. The point is – 95 percent of the people who are incarcerated will get out someday.”