In the past when dealing with criminals, “lock them up and throw away the key” was a common line of thinking. Today, when someone gets caught up in the criminal justice system, the argument is now made that they shouldn’t simply be forgotten as a lost cause and left to fend for themselves for the rest of their lives.
For 10 years now this has been the mantra of the Kent County Reentry Council, a trend-breaking regional collaborative of agencies and individuals with one common goal – helping parolees, probates and those recently released from prison successfully reenter society.
“Regardless of your perspective as to punishment of criminals, the essential thing to remember is…those folks are coming back to the community,” said Stephen Dambruch, Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Rhode Island. “And everybody wins if that reintegration into the community is successful.”
The council began with a simple conversation between Rhode Island Department of Corrections Director A.T. Wall, former warden of the women’s prison system Roberta Richmond, Kent County Probation and Parole Supervisor Christine Imbriglio and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian.
They discussed how they could implement a new strategy on reintroducing people into society once they committed a crime, and the possibility of Warwick becoming a cornerstone community for a group dedicated to helping identify and remove barriers from ex-cons and those on probation from being able to do so.
“Someone might have made a mistake once but we need them to be productive members of this community – and how do we do that?” said Avedisian at the 10th anniversary celebration event at Warwick City Hall on Tuesday. “From a city perspective, our goal was to let people know that, regardless of what had happened, it is important that they be part of our community again.”
With the full support of Avedisian and the police chiefs from Warwick, West Warwick, West Greenwich, East Greenwich and Coventry, the Kent County Reentry Council began. There were only six participating agencies in the beginning, anchored by Bridgemark, the Kent Center and Westbay Community Action. Today, the council has 28 total participating agencies and organizations. The council gets no funding, and operates purely on a volunteering basis.
The council’s work is two-fold. In the bigger picture, the agencies and organizations will get together and discuss policy issues and various barriers to successful reentry that they see in society. Together they represent the most robustly qualified and diversely skilled think tank on reentry issues in the state – with authoritative understanding of the criminal justice system, mental health and addiction issues and societal aspects and governmental failings that lead to crime and high recidivism.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is the smaller picture workings of the council. Each month there are two informational sessions held for those who have been recently released from prison or given a probation sentence – one in the community room of the Warwick Police Department and one at Thundermist Health Center in West Warwick.
Representatives from about a dozen of the help agencies attend the meetings. Each representative gives a presentation on how they can assist with reentering society – from how to get counseling if they need it, to setting them up with a job training program or a new suit for a job interview, to helping them sign up for food assistance.
“Having the person-to-person contact makes a huge difference when someone is struggling,” said Imbriglio of the sessions. “When somebody comes out of the ACI, many times they’ve burned bridges or have no family support and it’s back to a life of addiction or whatever they were doing. So being able to provide that connection with a person, versus just giving them a card with a phone number, is huge.”
While some of the individuals in the room at Warwick PD showed no interest in taking advantage of the resources presented to them and briskly walked out of the room once the mandatory meeting was concluded, about half of them stuck around and talked with various representatives. One woman came up directly to Imbriglio, thanking her emotionally for providing her a chance to restart her life with a clean slate.
“If they take advantage of the opportunities in front of them, they have opportunity to move forward,” said Colonel Stephen McCartney. “The community is behind them and we’re behind them.”
Although recidivism rates in the state, according to Department of Correction Records, have actually increased from 2009 to 2013 – a full 50 percent of offenders re-offended within three years of being released in 2013, opposed to 48 percent in 2009 – these numbers may not be accurately reflective of offenders from Kent County, as the majority of the prison population comes from Providence County.
For a true assessment of the impact of the Kent County Reentry Council, a comprehensive analysis would need to be made that tracked and logged the status of ex-prisoners and probationers who went through the council’s informational sessions. Would their recidivism rates be noticeable lower than the rates elsewhere in the state where such services aren’t equally provided? It’s an answer Imbriglio would love to find out.
“One of the things that I would like to see happen is do some statistical analysis and look at how we’re impacting individuals in the community,” she said. “We need to look at things and identify the areas that we’re trying to make a difference in.”
The success of the program, while not provable through analytical means at the moment, could be seen in the woman who thanked Imbriglio. Rather than being treated as damaged people who can never again be trusted, the council talked to them like people they wanted to see succeed again.
“What I’ve always been impressed with is this group has always looked at what are the possibilities, not what are the hindrances,” said Avedisian. “You are all examples of what you can create when the right people come to the table for the right reasons.”