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Leaving prison—and staying out

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It's not being soft on crime, Gov. Bev Perdue says, to decide that helping ex-offenders after they've left prison increases the chance that they won't commit another crime.

Perdue's 34-member StreetSafe task force, which includes top state officials as well as leaders from local nonprofit and faith-based groups, is charged with figuring out how to cut the recidivism rate—the number of offenders who commit another crime after being released from prison.

"This is all about being tougher on crime," Perdue said during a visit to the StepUP Ministry in Raleigh this month, "because we help people stay out of prison by giving them a life and a job and a capacity to succeed in the community, and that's what we want."

Based at White Memorial Presbyterian Church, StepUP is supported by about 15 faith-based organizations in Raleigh, according to John Battle, a program director. It assists some 250 men and women a year, many, but not all of them, ex-offenders and the homeless, to find jobs and housing. Participants complete a weeklong training class, then meet monthly in support groups, Battle told Perdue, learning among other things "how to cope with conflicts."

"I believe this works," Perdue told listeners. "I am so eager to see the results of the task force. I think it's of huge, huge importance to North Carolina, and we can become a model for the country."

The task force started with a realization by law enforcement officials, including Attorney General Roy Cooper and Department of Correction Secretary Alvin Keller, that the way the state deals with criminals needs to change, since locking up more people is producing more crime, not less of it.

Violent offenders should be locked up, Cooper says. But when nonviolent offenders are released, "if we can coordinate our efforts, I think we can make a huge difference in the recidivism rate."

One factor, Keller said, is that with parole eliminated except for prisoners sentenced a long time ago, 86 percent of those leaving prison are completely unsupervised—and unaided—by the correction system. "It's a big change," he said, especially for those without money or a place to live. "Not everyone can make that transition."

Jobs, housing, education and human services are "the big four" things that ex-offenders need, says Dennis Gaddy, who did time for securities fraud. He now heads the Raleigh-based Community Success Initiative, a program associated with Wake County Human Services and the state Employment Security Commission.

It costs about $28,000 a year to put someone back in prison, Gaddy noted, whereas "for $10,000 to $15,000 [invested in housing and other services] you can build a pretty solid support network that can help that person be at home, be a father, be a husband and be a productive person. You can get zero return from a person who's in prison."

Creation of the task force, with Cooper, Keller and two other members of Perdue's cabinet, Human Services Secretary Lanier Cansler and Juvenile Justice Secretary Linda Hayes, is a major victory for progressive advocacy groups like the N.C. Justice Center in Raleigh and the Durham-based Carolina Justice Policy Center (CJPC), which have long advocated for a serious scrutiny of state incarceration policy.

Charmaine Fuller Cooper, executive director of the CJPC, suggests that the task force examine not only re-entry problems but also alternatives to prison.

North Carolina is one of just three states (New York and Connecticut are the others), she pointed out, that try every 16- and 17-year old who's charged with a felony as an adult, which usually means they receive a prison sentence if convicted.

Most states retain juvenile-sentencing options for nonviolent offenses, she said. But here, "kids who sell drugs end up with a felony conviction on their record forever," eliminating educational and job opportunities. For example, under federal law, these kids can never qualify for college aid programs.

Cooper of the CJPC advocates more extensively using community-based alternative sentencing programs for non-violent crimes because these initiatives are cheaper than imprisonment, and recidivism rates decrease for criminals not sent to prison.

"We have to start being smarter about how we sentence people," she said.

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