For nearly 40 years, I’ve worked in the corrections industry having started as a parole officer and eventually retiring from the Department of Corrections as the Director of Adult Parole, Community Corrections and the Youthful Offender System. I also spent 15 years as a member of the Denver Community Corrections Board, so I understand the challenges faced by offenders transitioning back to society.
In the last month, the Denver City Council unexpectedly severed contracts with two halfway house providers: Core Civic and GEO Group. (I am a consultant for GEO Care, the division of GEO Group that runs halfway homes.) Those contracts have been temporarily extended, but questions remain about longer-term solutions and the fate of those who reside in halfway houses or who are awaiting a spot in one. Recent discussions about halfway houses have raised a number of questions about important programs that operate in the Denver community. Policymakers and advocates need to remain focused on measurable outcomes for all halfway houses including the completion rates of these programs and their usefulness in supporting individuals who are either returning to society from a period of incarceration, or are in danger of being incarcerated, due to criminal activity. We’ve heard the concerns from activists and politicians, but the voices of those whose lives are impacted daily remain silenced. Some of the recent media coverage paints a bleak picture of the services delivered in local halfway houses and creates uncertainty about whether they are fulfilling their mandate or mission.
What is often neglected in telling this story are the positive findings from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. Responsible for getting people back on their feet as they return to the community, halfway houses are fulfilling that mandate in many ways that are not being mentioned.
The reality is that individuals who arrive at a halfway house are unemployed or underemployed. The Criminal Justice database clearly highlighted that individuals who successfully complete their stay in a halfway house are more likely to transition from the ranks of the unemployed to full-time employment status. For example, in fiscal year 2018, participants in GEO’s Tooley Hall halfway house increased full-time employment from 14% at entry to 61% at exit; while for those participants at its Williams Street Center facility full-time employment increased from 20% to 66%. Halfway houses also offer educational and vocational opportunities that the participant can complete, and the Criminal Justice database reported that many individuals go onto complete their high school diploma or vocational certifications while they are participants at the halfway houses. High school diplomas increased from 66% to 73% at Tooley Hall during this same time frame and from 50% to 53% at Williams’ Street.
Besides educational and vocational advances during their time in the halfway house, the data indicates that the halfway houses reduce the likelihood that the individual will commit another crime in the community. The actual new re-arrests were quite low for Tooley and Williams Street with new crimes listed as comprising only 2% to 4% of the halfway terminations from 2013 through 2018. This low percentage of individuals who are re-arrested is significant, particularly given that the halfway house participants are usually convicted felons.
Coloradans must also consider population changes that have occurred at halfway houses over the years including programs that have gone from primarily male to primarily female or vice versa. The gender of the participant is a relevant factor in whether an individual commits another crime. Programs with cutting edge curriculums like the Enhancing Motivation by Achieving Reshaped Cognition (EMBARC) program at Tooley Hall have to be part of the conversation. Some have implied that the halfway house program model was problematic, due to the use of private providers, while neglecting the complexities of running a halfway house for people who are trying to get back on their feet after having been taken from the community to serve a prison sentence.
The importance of halfway houses cannot be overstated as a “stepping stone” for an individual as he or she prepares to return to society. While all programs can improve through innovation and feedback, a thorough review of the Division of Criminal Justice database indicates that the Denver halfway houses have improved many individuals’ lives through a structured environment that emphasizes positive behavioral change including employment and educational advancements. In short, the DCJ data supports the concept that halfway houses such as Tooley Hall and Williams Street are, in fact, improving public safety operations.
Sadly, political ideology has overtaken reality leaving our most vulnerable residents as collateral damage. Instead of political rhetoric, we should listen to people on the ground who really understand and who make a difference every day. We should expect more from local leaders, but at the very least if we say we are going to care about vulnerable populations, then let’s show them we care and make decisions based on facts and not on personal political agendas.
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