State Searches For Transitional Housing For Released Inmates

05/24/10 5:50PM By Sarah Ashworth
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AP Photo/Toby Talbot
(Host) As part of the "Challenges for Change" legislation that lawmakers passed this session, the state plans to release more non-violent offenders from prison to save money. 

But when those inmates leave prison before their maximum sentence is up, they're required to find stable housing. 

VPR's Sarah Ashworth explains.

(Ashworth) The Department of Corrections says that when it releases an inmate without housing plans in place, that person usually ends up back behind bars.  But for an offender with the support of housing, the success rate is closer to 50 percent.  And that's been the case for Jeff Whitcomb.  He went to prison for felony drunken driving, but now is a resident at a transitional home in Burlington.

(Whitcomb) "It sounded like it would be a good place for me to do what I needed to do to restart my life."

(Ashworth) Whitcomb lives at Dismas House in Burlington, a non-profit program for released inmates that runs homes in Burlington, Winooski and Rutland.   Back in 2008, he was forced to stay in prison five months over his minimum sentence because he was unable to find housing.

Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito says the Challenges for Change legislation targets the 150 cases like Whitcomb's, people who are incarcerated because they don't have a safe, secure residence set up.

(Pallito) "There was an acknowledgement that the DOC holds people beyond their minimum sentence because they don't have structured housing. And so from our perspective, if we're just simply going to release an offender, there's probably going to be a new crime and they're probably going to be reincarcerated on new charges and have a longer sentence and it really repeats it all over again.  But if we can put that person into a structured housing such as Dismas House, then ultimately that will lead to less incarceration."

(Ashworth) The state of Vermont doesn't run its own halfway houses, and never has.  Instead it provides grants to community-based houses, like Dismas of Vermont.  The group's executive director, Rita Whalen McCaffrey, says Dismas works closely with the DOC, but it won't be able to simply open up more houses in order to meet the department's need.

(Whalen McCaffrey)  "We are a community-based operation, that is very thoughtful in the way we proceed with Dismas Houses.  It's when the local community is interested in our model that we go and we work with them and meet with them."

(Ashworth) The state is looking at releasing more non-violent offenders in the coming months. So, it hopes to use $3.9 million in grants to create at least 50 new beds by 2011.  That's about a million dollars more than in this year's budget.

Jeff Whitcomb says if the new beds are created, they could help more people like him.

(Whitcomb) I'm going to stay as long as necessary.  I'm the night manager here, and I like my job, I'm good at my job, and the support from the director here and everybody in the house.  We try to keep an eye on each other and we help each other."

(Ashworth) And with more inmates in prison today than there were ten years ago, Commissioner Andy Pallito says the state has a responsibility to help people like Jeff Whitcomb rebuild their lives and stop the cycle of high incarceration rates.   

For VPR News, I'm Sarah Ashworth.

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