Vermont Program Shows Early Success at Reintegrating Ex-Cons

Law enforcers and criminal defense attorneys around the country have acknowledged the problem of recidivism-the committing of crimes by those who have served time in and been released from prison.

A national study in 1994 found that two-thirds of convicts released from prison were convicted of a serious crime within three years of their reentry into society. And it’s no wonder-many employers are hesitant to hire people who have criminal convictions or prison stints on their records.

Luckily, some of those who have recognized the problem have taken steps to solve it. The Rutland Herald reports on a new Vermont program that facilitates criminals’ reentry into society by pairing them with a support team of volunteers.

The program, which was launched after a similar program found success in Canada, connects felons with networks of volunteers in their community, according to the Herald. The group members begin meeting with their offender in prison, and continue offering support and guidance during the offender’s release and reentry.

Sources indicate that volunteers help offenders find jobs and places to live, offer rides and advice, and generally socialize with the offenders. The teams, known as “circles of support and accountability,” meet weekly at community justice centers in the five Vermont towns using the program, according to reports.

In addition to volunteers, the offenders reportedly have parole officers and supervisors paid by the community centers to help keep tabs on their post-prison activity. Considered “core members” of their support groups, offenders participate in discussions about the impact of their crimes on their communities.

The program is based on the theory that offenders often reoffend because they’re trapped in an unfortunate cycle of crime: when released from prison, they face difficulties getting hired for jobs because of their criminal records. As a result, many turn to illegal sources of income, are rearrested, and head back to prison.

And, because of the stigma attached to those who have spent time in prison, reentering community life can be just as difficult. This program addresses these problems, allowing offenders greater opportunities to interact with community members, get and hold down jobs, and establish themselves through legitimate channels.

And volunteer enthusiasm for the project is reportedly high: the more the offenders succeed in the community, the safer the community members are. Sources cited the Canadian program’s biggest hurdle as finding enough volunteers for the support groups.

But, in one Vermont town, that hurdle was apparently cleared when local children’s author Katherine Paterson (who wrote Bridge to Terabithia) signed up for a team.

Similar programs have been launched in the United Kingdom and a few other states, and other officials are beginning to take like-minded initiatives. Harold Clarke, chief of Massachusetts‘ prison system, has announced plans to focus prison programs on rehabilitation, education and job training, according to the Boston Herald.

His efforts came in light of reports that showed that half of all offenders released from prison were back behind bars within a year, sources indicate. And the evidence supporting such programs is strong: studies show that offenders without support groups are three times more likely to reoffend than those with supportive networks.

Of the Vermont offenders currently participating in the program, less than 9% have been rearrested-a much lower rate than the 67% national average.

Lawmakers have realized that the “revolving door” of the American prison system is not going to go away without serious changes. And programs like the one in Vermont seem to be on the right track for making those changes happen.