Jim Kenyon: Out of jail, they have to go somewhere

Valley News Columnist
Published: 7/24/2021 9:53:54 PM
Modified: 7/24/2021 9:53:55 PM

Part of Kym Anderson’s job is to find affordable apartments for people in need, which even under ordinary circumstances can be virtually impossible in the housing-deficient Upper Valley.

But when your clients are felons who have done time?

Anderson, the reentry program coordinator at the Orange County Restorative Justice Center in Chelsea, can only hope that landlords and the public in general are willing to keep an open mind.

“People are going to be coming out of jail whether we support them or not,” she said, referring to U.S. Justice Department statistics that indicate 95% of inmates are released from prison at some point. “For people to put their best selves forward, they need security.”

It starts with people having a roof over their heads.

Last week, the Vermont Department of Corrections doled out $5.8 million in “transitional housing” grants to 15 community organizations who will arrange housing and coordinate support services for offenders who are returning to the outside world, sometimes following long stints behind bars.

The Orange County Restorative Justice Center and the Hartford Community Restorative Justice Center in downtown White River Junction are among the recipients, getting $111,000 and $182,000, respectively.

Both justice centers have been assisting recently released offenders with housing for a while. The Hartford center currently has nine offenders that it has placed in apartments.

Anderson told me about a couple of people that she’s placed, including a guy in his 60s who spent more than 10 years in prison. He’s now working as a machine technician and paying his own rent.

In her seven years with the justice center, Anderson has come across offenders who have been in prison so long, they’ve “never had a cellphone,” she said. “They’re re-entering a different world.”

The justice centers have enlisted volunteers — with a need for more — who can help ease offenders’ reintegration into the community with simple gestures like getting together for coffee.

With the infusion of state money, Anderson is looking for landlords willing to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Randolph and another in Bradford. The grant also supports a third apartment in Orange County, but the justice center is waiting to hear who the tenant will be before narrowing its search to a specific town.

That fits with what DOC is trying to accomplish, Derek Miodownik, DOC’s community and restorative justice executive, told me. “We’re looking to make people more self-sufficient in communities they are familiar with,” he said.

Along with subsidizing rent payments, the justice centers can use the state money to cover move-in costs, which can run into the thousands of dollars after security deposits and first-and-last-month rent payments are figured in.

But it’s not a free ride. Within a couple of weeks of leaving prison, offenders are expected to have jobs lined up and pay a portion of their rent. They’re also told to plan on moving out within a year, which means saving money to put toward permanent housing.

Even when living on their own, offenders in the transitional housing program remain under the supervision of DOC’s probation and parole officers, who can make unannounced visits to their apartments. If required under their conditions of early release, they must attend substance use and mental health counseling,

In Hartford and Orange County, the justice centers — not the tenants — will hold the apartment leases. That way landlords are assured they’ll “always get their rent checks at the first of the month,” said Jonathan Tuthill, assistant director at Hartford Restorative Justice.

And “if there are any issues with a (tenant), the landlord can just call us,” he added.

Get-tough-on-crime types might view a program that spends millions on ex-cons as coddling people who least deserve it.

But DOC is betting that setting up offenders to live more independently will lower recidivism rates, which will eventually save taxpayers money, and change lives. (In 2016, the most recent year that DOC has tracked the information, nearly half — 44% — of offenders returned to prison within three years.)

“We believe that with support, people will actually make better choices,” Emily Higgins, DOC’s housing administrator said in an interview.

At first, I had my doubts about placing recently released inmates in their own apartments. But it wasn’t because I want to see offenders remain locked up.

From a financial standpoint, spending $60,000 or more a year to warehouse offenders beyond their minimum sentences is no bargain when the cost of transitional housing is about one-third that amount.

Vermont began using transitional housing — on a smaller scale — about 15 years ago to aid prison overcrowding.

As I wrote in May, DOC initially planned to fund its so-called “scattered housing” initiative at the expense of the 12-bed Hartford Dismas House and other congregate housing organizations. Hartford Dismas stood to lose $90,000 of its roughly $170,000 in state funding.

After hearing from lawmakers, DOC apparently decided there was money for both housing models in its $167 million annual budget. Hartford Dismas’ funding was restored in full.

It makes sense for the state to invest in both transitional housing models.

Still, I don’t envy the job ahead for Anderson and her co-workers at the Orange County Restorative Justice Center. After a string of break-ins and petty thefts in Chelsea and surrounding communities, some residents have been quite vocal about Vermont’s criminal justice system being too lenient.

And now the state is sinking millions into a restorative justice program that’s all about getting more people out of prison sooner?

“I feel it’s a good time,” Anderson told me. “We’re about to showcase a program that we know works.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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