Members of a new coalition discussed various methods to reduce the number of repeat offenders on the Kenai Peninsula during an inaugural Wednesday meeting. Topics discussed included safe and secure housing, employment and education, among other things.
“The focus is safety rather than incarceration in the future,” said Ruben Foster, Kenai adult probation officer and facilitator of the meeting.
The Kenai Coalition for Prisoner Re-entry has yet to narrow its focus, but the group plans to increase communication among its members and strengthen knowledge about available resources over the next 12 months. Additional services for released or soon-to-be released inmates also are planned for the area.
Carmen Gutierrez, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Corrections, attended the meeting and shared recidivism statistics with the group of about a dozen community leaders.
The coalition’s members are comprised of representatives from the judiciary, including a judge, the district attorney’s office and the public defenders agency; and the community, including Serenity House, Lee Shore Center and College Heights Baptist Church.
Prisoner rehabilitation is beyond the DOC’s mandates imposed by the state, which increases the need for collaborative efforts with communities, Gutierrez said.
“Historically, the department has done secure confinement well, but rehabilitation is difficult,” she said. “So, we’re working on expanding substance abuse programs and faith-based programs.”
A draft mission statement was presented to the group. Goals will be accomplished by “increasing community awareness of the problems facing returning prisoners, better utilization of community assets through improved communication and collaboration between the (DOC) and the community,” it reads.
Increased communication between the members’ agencies requires thinking outside the box; how they can work together rather than against each other. For example, more collaboration between probation officers and public defenders, Foster said.
Kenai Judge Carl Bauman noted the potential of obtaining state funds to further the coalition’s goals. However, the Legislature occasionally adheres to the ideal of not coddling prisoners, he said.
“More can be done, but the current statement may be too prisoner friendly,” Bauman said. “Accountability needs to be addressed.”
Residents’ perception of the makeup of the prison population needs adjustment, Gutierrez said.
“There’s default beliefs, but 64 percent of the state’s incarcerated individuals are non-violent offenders,” she said.
Many offenders are re-incarcerated when their probation officers petition to revoke probation. This is often attributed to substance use and abuse. Every two out of three offenders come back within six years; half within six months. The high rates of recidivism also are attributed to a lack of community support and addiction, Gutierrez said.
Residential substance abuse treatment (RSAT) is not available at Wildwood. The RSAT program available to male inmates is located in Hudson, Colo. The prison has a 90-day, less intensive program.
All inmates who have need of substance abuse treatment are eligible for the program. Admission priority is given to inmates with a higher risk assessment and those who are close to their release dates, Richard Schmitz, DOC communications special assistant, said in an email.
In 2010, the 90-day program replaced Wildwood’s therapeutic community; an alternative justice model in which a collaborative court team made up of a supervising judge, district attorney, defense counsel, probation officer or substance abuse or mental health treatment provider, oversees and closely monitors participants who chose the treatment program in lieu of incarceration.
A newer community-based substance abuse program is planned for fiscal year 2013. The DOC will operate the Living Success Substance Abuse Treatment program, and it will be located in Kenai. Additional DOC funding allocated through the state’s operating budget made this and other aftercare components for inmates a priority on the Peninsula.
Gutierrez said Corrections will request proposals from interested providers, so the location or timeline of the program is not yet determined, early in the fiscal year, which begins July 1, is likely.
“All the research shows the substance abuse treatment programs in the community tend to ... have better outcomes because the client is in their community,” she said.
The majority of members who attended the coalition’s first meeting agreed housing and employment are critical issues.
Well-intentioned efforts to create safety have caused collateral consequences for felons seeking work, Foster said.
Alaska statutes put employment restrictions on convicted felons. Gutierrez said on the one hand, some measures make sense, like keeping sex offenders from running child care facilities. On the other hand, opportunities are stymied. For example, felons cannot be licensed fishing guides, and it’s hard for them to become substance abuse counselors.
Gutierrez remains confident that local employers will support hiring felons as long as education about tax breaks and other incentives are made clear. But Judge Bauman said the community repeatedly has shown a lack of interest in hiring felons.
The group plans to meet quarterly, with representatives presenting their available services for the first year. It also hopes to add new members.
“We’re just getting our feet on the ground,” Foster said.