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Inmates deserve better shot at reform

The underlying theological message of Christmas is one of redemption, which makes this a most appropriate time of year to consider a group of individuals who are in great need of society’s forgiveness and help.

As reported this month in a three-part series of stories in the Portland Tribune, people being released from Oregon’s prisons don’t always receive the support they need for a successful return to life on the outside. When thrown back into the real world, more than half are released into homelessness. They commit illegal acts again, and end up right back in jail.

This unhappy cycle represents a sad waste of human potential. Former prisoners are not, by definition, a group of people who garner much public sympathy. However, even if you count yourself among the hardhearted types who want to lock up offenders and throw away the key, there are very good reasons to support better policies and programs to ease prisoners’ re-entry into their communities.

Money is one of those reasons. Keeping people in prison is more expensive than providing the support necessary to guide them toward a productive life. Another benefit is quite obvious: Most crime is committed by a small number of repeat offenders. If those men and women, after prison, can be integrated into society, everyone else will be safer.

Recidivism among released prisoners is a national problem, but Oregon has specific opportunities to improve the odds for ex-offenders in this state. As the recent reporting by the Tribune’s Peter Korn demonstrates, the most important thing for departing prisoners is to be greeted at the gate by a mentor or a sponsor — someone who will lead them to a place to sleep, connect them to social services, and steer them toward good choices.

The majority of people being released from Oregon’s prisons don’t have access to a mentor, but there are nonprofit groups —such as Portland-based Bridges to Change — that provide excellent examples of how this work can be done. Its 90-day mentor program includes clean-and-sober housing, employment assistance and services such as anger-management classes. As the Bridges group points out, the cost of re-incarcerating an ex-offender in one of Oregon’s state prisons is $30,828 a year. By comparison, a bed in a halfway house, mentoring included, costs a mere $20 a night ($7,300 annually).

That’s why we believe it is important for Oregon legislators to resist taking money from one pot — a fund that is intended to keep offenders out of prison — and instead using it to pay for an expansion of Deer Ridge Correctional Institute in Madras. Dollars spent on prevention will go a great deal further than those spent on prison beds.

Money expended on such services, however, is only effective if prisoners are required to take advantage of them. Under current sentencing rules in Oregon, many prisoners have release dates that are set in stone. As a result, corrections officials have no ability to offer earlier release as an incentive to enter a mentor program or halfway house.

Corrections officials need better leverage over prisoners who are nearing their release dates, but what’s also required is more complete coordination between prison officials, parole officers, nonprofit groups and other community resources. In many cases, officials know what works, but it’s a matter of aligning prison sentences and corrections and parole practices with the money being allocated to combat recidivism.

Greater public understanding would help, too. The sins of prisoners may be larger than most, but a life detoured by crime and a prison sentence does not have to be a life wasted. Every person still needs the chance to make a valuable contribution — to achieve some form of redemption.