Polk County is looking to get volunteers and businesses involved in a new program to help felons succeed when they return to the area after being released from prison.
Jay Neal, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Transition Support and Re-Entry, was in Cedartown last week presenting a program to local officials the state hopes will reduce the felony recidivism rate in Georgia and lower crime overall.
Neal, a pastor and former state representative, said during the meeting last week the state isn’t simply coming in and implementing a program based on state priorities, but giving locals the opportunity to use already developed guidelines to create a program tailored to Polk County.
“All we’re doing is providing a statewide framework each community can use to build a program based on the needs of the local community,” he said.
Neal made it clear the program isn’t about early release. Instead, it focuses on reducing the number of people behind bars by targeting those who are of medium or high risk of becoming repeat offenders once they are released from the prison population.
The need to do something about the problem – throughout the state – is dire. Neal said the state is spending $1.2 billion a year on funding for the Department of Corrections, the second highest expenditure for the state behind the Department of Education.
Coupled with that is what Neal says is a high number of individuals who are in the state’s corrections system. He said 1 in 13 people in the state are either locked up behind bars or on parole or probation. A number he says is entirely too high. The national average is 1 in 31 people.
“Is that because Georgians are worse than people in other states? No,” Neal said. “It’s because we have a problem with recidivism in Georgia.”
A big problem, according to Neal. Recidivism in Georgia is defined as an offender getting out of prison and committing another felony within 3 years of their release. The rate in Georgia is currently 27 percent.
The idea is to give people released from prison an opportunity to find what they need when they get out: jobs, housing and most importantly, structure and support from the community as a whole.
“If they don’t have housing and they don’t have jobs, and the support system they need, it’s much easier for them to go back into the life they knew,” Neal said.
He laid out how a framework for Polk County might work based off of pilot program sites around the state already being set up. The idea is get those sentenced by a crime back on the straight and narrow as soon as they get into the system.
A three phase system with several decision points built in to decide how an offender is progressing in the program is built off of providing services in major areas like offender education, job searches, housing and family and community support.
Modeled off a program designed in Michigan and implemented over two years, Neal said the Georgia Prison Re-entry Initiative looks to get going sooner than that timeframe. Already pilot programs in Albany, Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Macon and Savannah are underway, and more cities and counties throughout the state are expected to be added.
Neal said the program reduced the recidivism rate in Michigan by 34 percent since its inception.
The program isn’t perfect, Neal said. In fact, he made it clear that those who invest their efforts into helping prisoners return to the community will likely be disappointed from time to time.
“It’s important to know nothing we do will completely eliminate crime in our community,” he said. “We will have isolated cases with individuals who we work with in the system, they’re going to get out, and they’ll likely commit a crime.”
He said the public should understand the individual incidents of those who commit crimes despite their participation in the re-entry initiative does not mean the system won’t or doesn’t work.
Associate Juvenile Court Judge and local attorney Chuck Morris doesn’t want to wait for the results of a pilot program.
Bringing together a number of different local organizations, including the Department of Labor and Simply Staffing in Rockmart, the Tallapoosa Circuit of Polk and Haralson counties looks to kick off their re-entry program this fall with 10 inmates.
“While we’re not part of the state pilot program, we want to get this underway,” he said.
He said his experiences on both the bench and defending people in the courtroom have helped him understand the time when you have an offender’s attention the most is when they are being sentenced by a judge. To that end, Morris said he wants to get the attention of people being sentenced early.
“If we invest people with this idea that they can change, and that the change can be a meaningful thing in their life when we have their attention the most, I think we’ll be successful in helping them,” Morris said.
When he heard about the program in the spring, he said it was excited to start bringing together community partners. The Tallapoosa Circuit Re-Entry Coalition is already working toward bringing in government partners like the Department of Labor and private businesses. Morris said the organization will organize for its nonprofit status within the month.
He said the program will start with 10 inmates to be identified by a local committee and put them through the several phases of the new program before they’ll be returning home.
What Morris said the organization will need before then is a base of volunteers willing to be part of the support system, since many inmates might not have the family support they need when they get out to succeed.
“It’s going to be this investment from the community who will ultimately decide on the success of this program,” he said.