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.