02-19-2017  8:55 am      •     

For many young men who embark on a life of crime, the jailhouse door can be a revolving one. After a brief period of freedom, far too many find themselves back behind bars again — as many as 68 percent of male offenders between the ages of 18 and 25 end up back in prison, said Felica Otis, clinical director of Volunteers of America's Community Partners Reinvestment Project.
The project aims to reduce the rate of recidivism — or repeat jail time — among young men in Portland, not by punishment, but by a combination of counseling, personal attention and education.
"What research has shown, and what we've seen here in our own experience, is that if you use punishment alone, you actually increase the rate of recidivism," Otis said.
The project started about two years ago, Otis said, as an outgrowth of the community-wide reaction to Ballot Measure 11, which set strict mandatory minimum sentences for serious offenses like assault, kidnapping, arson, robbery and murder. Given that recidivism is such a problem among young men, she said, Volunteers of America and other community organizations mounted an effort to help young offenders avoid moving from committing petty crimes to more serious crimes.
The project helps to reduce recidivism by addressing the major factors that lead young men to be repeat offenders — namely, education, substance abuse and abusive family situations. The young men are referred to the project by Multnomah County, contacted by the program about three to six months prior to their release, and stay involved well after their release, Otis said.
By far, education — or the lack of it — has the largest impact on young men who find themselves in jail. Most of the project's clients, Otis said, have less than an eighth-grade education, and only 10 to 15 percent have finished high school by the time they gain the project's attention.
"You basically need to get your GED and get a decent job in order to stay out of jail," she said. "If you don't address that need, it continues to be a risk factor that can get you sent back."
The project provides the young men with a needs assessment, therapeutic and substance abuse counseling, helps them to study toward their high school diploma or GED, and emphasizes that a life spent in prison has a devastating impact on family members — either on the young man's parents and siblings or on his own children and partner. Building stronger familial bonds, Otis said, can be a powerful incentive for young men to stay out of jail.
Each client receives a course of services tailored to his specific needs. And it works.
Out of the 40 young men that have participated in the project, Otis said, only three have gone back to jail — a much better figure than the 68 percent recidivism rate among youth whose risk factors are never addressed.
"If punishment alone were enough," she said, "we'd have nobody left in our correctional institutions."
The reason that the project targets young men in the 18- to 25-year-old age group, Otis said, is that these are the most formative years in a young man's development, the age at which it's most likely that he'll make the choices that either land him in jail or not.
"They carry the highest risk of recidivism," Otis said. "One of the challenges with any group of folks this age is that they have a hard time taking advice or being open, because they already know it all."
The project's approach is modeled after similar programs in place in Canada and in other U.S. communities, Otis said, which have demonstrated success in reducing recidivism through non-punitive means. A common thread, she added, was the emphasis on young offenders' ties to their community and what it can mean to them if they are permanently alienated from it.
"When you become an offender, once you get that label, it's a really hard thing to live down and move forward from," she said. "When we say to them, 'You're a part of this community, we're going to welcome you back and help you do the right thing,' it makes a difference, because these are the folks who are often on the margins.
"We don't want them to be offenders — we want them to be tax-paying citizens who make their communities better places."
For more information about the Community Partners Reinvestment Project, visit www.voaor.org.

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  • WASHINGTON (AP) — One month after the inauguration, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Donald Trump's White House still is a hard-hat zone. Skeletal remains of the inaugural reviewing stands poke skyward. Random piles of plywood and cables are heaped on the ground inside crooked lines of metal fencing. The disarray outside the president's front door, though not his fault, serves as a metaphor for the tumult still unfolding inside. Four weeks in, the man who says he inherited "a mess" at home and abroad is presiding over a White House that is widely described as itself being a mess. At a stunning pace, Trump has riled world leaders and frustrated allies. He was dealt a bruising legal blow on one of his signature policies. He lost his national security adviser and his pick for labor secretary to scandal. He's seen forces within his government push back against his policies and leak confidential information. All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. "I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. 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Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. 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