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Vermonters help ease life on the outside

Towns trying to keep ex-cons on right path

At a dinner in a church basement this month in Barre, Vt., support teams and former inmates, including Steve Gibson (gesturing), enjoyed a communal dinner. At a dinner in a church basement this month in Barre, Vt., support teams and former inmates, including Steve Gibson (gesturing), enjoyed a communal dinner. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / November 24, 2007

BARRE, Vt. - Vermont corrections officials are trying a radical new strategy to reintegrate the state's worst offenders into society: Team them up with groups of students, parents, businesspeople, and retirees in the towns they return to after prison, and let these surrogate families and friends show them how they can fit in again.

Modeling their efforts on a successful Canadian program, towns across Vermont are matching felons who have served time in prison for sexually abusing children, beating up family members, dealing drugs, and other offenses with artists, barbers, lawyers, teachers, and retirees. The volunteers help the returning offenders find jobs and apartments, give them rides and advice, and socialize with them. The idea, which is backed by studies of the Canadian program, is that former inmates who feel connected to the places where they live are less likely to break laws again.

The Vermont Department of Corrections is one of the first in the United States to embrace the approach, using a three-year $2 million federal grant it received in 2003, said Derek Miodownik, the grant manager.

Support teams, called "circles of support and accountability," meet weekly to check on former prisoners in Newport, St. Johnsbury, Barre, Montpelier, and Brattleboro. Each offender works with a small team of volunteers, who begin meeting with the offender before he or she leaves prison. The teams are supervised by local community justice centers, state-funded agencies that work with crime victims and offenders. Paid coordinators, who are employed by the centers, lead the groups and help make sure offenders stay on track. The offenders have been released from prison under state supervision; all have counselors or probation officers who also keep tabs on them.

To make them feel part of the team, the volunteers refer to the offenders as "core members." The teams discuss the effects of the crimes the offenders committed on their victims and the community.

Eric Horowitz, 45, of Brattleboro, said he would probably be back in prison if not for his four team members. They have taken him bowling, to restaurants, and on walks, said Horowitz, who served six years for lewd and lascivious conduct with a minor and aggravated domestic assault.

When he saw that the members of his team did not condemn him, "it was a great surprise to me," he said. He said the group has boosted his self-esteem and taught him an important lesson: "When you do something to society, it loses trust in you, and you have to rebuild that trust."

The fate of the Vermont project is uncertain. The federal grant funding will run out at the end of the year, and legislation that would provide more money remains tied up in Congress, said Miodownik. The grant money pays the salaries of the group coordinators.

For now, Vermont has set up 23 trained support teams in five towns and cities. Most of the offenders have returned to the towns where they lived and committed their crimes.

The new initiative has attracted volunteers such as Howard and Elinor Yahm, 64-year-old retired psychotherapists who moved to Vermont almost a year ago from New York. They said they have grown close to the young man their team is trying to help, a 20-year-old who recently served 18 months in prison for possession of child pornography.

Asked about his progress, the Yahms said proudly that the young man is doing "terrifically," thriving in the job they helped him find as manager of a deli and dating a new girlfriend.

"The more successful he is, the more protected the community is," said another volunteer, Jeannie MacLeod of Barre.

A trained mediator and the mother of a young son, MacLeod, 40, is on a team that is helping another former convict, a man who served nine months for assaulting a family member.

MacLeod said she volunteered because she knew the family of her offender. But she quickly found herself riveted by the drama of helping another person struggle through the adversity of returning from prison.

Wilson said recruiting volunteers has been the toughest task facing the program in Canada. In Barre, a blue-collar city of 9,000 people, project leaders said recruitment took off, driven by word of mouth, after Katherine Paterson, the local author of the bestselling children's novel "Bridge To Terabithia," decided to volunteer. About 30 volunteers now serve on nine support teams.

Colorado and a handful of other states are also setting up volunteer teams, and there are other signs that the model may be gaining momentum. Canadian psychologist Robin Wilson, a leading proponent, was in Boston last week to explain how the program works in Canada to clergy members, legislators, and social workers.

Getting residents involved in the lives of felons improves public safety, says Wilson and other proponents. The volunteers become invested in the successful reintegration of the former inmates and serve as role models who help steer their charges away from activities that could lead to crime. In an interview, Wilson said former prisoners fare better under the Canadian approach than when they are shunned in their communities.

"We have to get our heads around the idea that most of them are going to come back to the same places they left," he said. "We can't put them on an island somewhere."

Between 150 and 200 of the circles are operating in Canada, where they serve mostly sex offenders. Another 40 to 50 are in place in the United Kingdom, Wilson said.

A Canadian study compared 60 convicted sex offenders who were deemed most likely to reoffend but who had the help of support teams with 60 felons convicted of similar crimes who lacked such support. The study, conducted by Wilson in 2005, found that the returning felons without support teams were about three times more likely to commit new sex crimes than those with support teams, and more than twice as likely to commit any violent crime within four to five years of their release from prison.

Vermont corrections officials say it is too soon to judge the outcome of the program, which started teaming volunteers with felons in 2005, but they are encouraged: Of the 23 offenders currently participating in the project, some of whom have been in the program for more than a year, only two have been charged with new offenses. One of those two was convicted of providing alcohol to a minor, a lesser crime than his original drug offense, said Miodownik, the grant administrator.

Nationwide, about two-thirds of the people released from prison were arrested for another serious crime within three years of their release, according to a 1994 government study.

The effort in Vermont has drawn little criticism, but some supporters of crime victims say the state should make sure that their needs receive equal attention.

"We hope this is helpful in preventing future victims," said Sharon Davis, special projects coordinator for the Vermont Center for Crime Victims Services. "But on the other side, we should also worry about what we're doing in the longer term for victims."

At a dinner for members of the nine support teams in Barre church basement this month, Howard and Elinor Yahm looked on, smiling, as their young charge dashed back and forth in a Red Sox T-shirt, delivering steaming bowls of squash and potatoes from the kitchen to the table. The former prisoner, who asked that his name not be published, said he hopes one day to be a chef and own a restaurant.

In and out of the criminal justice system for years, the young man said a lot of people have tried to help him, but his group members are different.

"They're not paid to help," he said. "They do it of their own free will."

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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