System failure at the D.O.C?

Last year, 682 felons were released from prison into the Central Area and surrounding neighborhoods (in the 98122 and 98144 ZIP codes). This represented more than 13 percent of all offenders released into King County in 2004.

This level of concentration not only surprises 47-year Leschi resident and longtime community activist Thurston Muskelly, it frustrats him.

"I was not aware that the number was so high," Muskelly said. "I would like to see more notification, more accountability from the system. Nobody here gives us a quota sheet, gives us numbers of how many people are coming here.

"Maybe we can help some of these individuals," he added, "but if you don't know and they're dropping them in randomly, you don't know what resources are needed."

Muskelly, who is the director of several Central Area community organizations, is also a board trustee for the Central Weed & Seed program and is a community volunteer for the Washington state Department of Corrections (DOC).

From his experience, Muskelly understands that released offenders have particular social and economic needs and, if not attended to, can cause serious harm to a community. While he wants to help them "become whole," he said he also wants to protect the economic growth that has blossomed in the Central Area in recent years.

"It's been a long time waiting on what we've got now," Muskelly said. "If we don't respond now, people will begin moving out."

In response to Muskelly's concerns, and after hearing similar concerns from other residents at a recent public forum in the area, Linda Bonazza, acting DOC correctional manager for the West Central Region (which includes King and Pierce counties), said that monthly projections of how many offenders will be released into certain geographic regions, probably by ZIP code, will be made available soon.

Muskelly said that while this information is a good starting point, more needs to be done by all levels of government for this problem to be truly addressed.

"The community's not ready for this many offenders," he said. "We don't have any kind of mechanism to receive them. They're just here. The system is designed to fail."

There is considerable statistical evidence to support Muskelly's assertion of system failure, at least in some areas.

For example, according to the DOC, half of all Level 3 sex offenders (those most likely to re-offend) are released from prison without securing housing that has been approved by the department. This supervisory gap has trickled down to local communities.

According to the Seattle Police Department, of the 1,447 sex offenders (of all levels) registered in the city of Seattle, only 20 percent are under DOC supervision.

And according to the department, there are 165 homeless sex offenders, 67 of which are Level 3, residing either downtown or in the East Precinct area.

These sex offenders may receive no more supervision than meeting a weekly requirement to report to authorities, officials say. Only after they fail to report can action be taken. And that is often difficult.

"Until these guys have homes," said Detective Bob Shilling, of the Seattle Police Department's Special Assault Unit, "there's no way for us to find them."

The root of this problem, said DOC community-protection administrator Victoria Roberts, is the difficulty the state has in finding housing for these offenders whomthe community will accept. She said that many of these offenders reach the end of their sentence before a satisfactory release plan can be completed, at which time they must, by law, be released.

"We know that stability is a key, especially for sex offenders, to keeping them from re-offending," Roberts said. "But right now the focus is on pushing these people out."

Police programs

Despite this problem, it appears that DOC is making some headway with a core of programs that target the high-risk offenders of all categories and crimes.

For example, according to DOC statistics between 2002 and 2004, the number of high-risk offenders involved in work-release programs increased from 30 to 45 percent.

In the same period of time, the number of these offenders who completed chemical-dependency programs more than doubled.

One of the most popular of the department's high-risk offender programs, particularly within the community and local police departments, is the Neighborhood Corrections Initiative (NCI).

Under this program, the DOC community corrections officer is police academy-trained and partnered with a regular patrol officer. These NCI officers are armed and have full DOC enforcement powers in the street.

The program has officers in King and Pierce counties and is jointly funded by DOC and the police departments involved. The first NCI officer joined the East Precinct last December.

The value of this program, supporters say, is that the NCI officers are familiar with the offenders and their restrictions and can act instantly to violations. In addition to responding to violators, these officers develop relationships with released offenders and are able to help them resolve problems without the need for further incarceration, which is a far more expensive option for the community.

Another side benefit, supporters say, is that patrol officers learn a great deal about the DOC's operation and are more efficient at their jobs.

"It's what I see as a real good fit," East Precinct Capt. Mike Meehan said. "A real positive for both sides."

So positive, Meehan said, that he intends to initiate similar patrol partnerships on a more limited basis with the three DOC officers who now do casework out of the East Precinct.

Cuts likely

There is a possible black cloud on the horizon, however. According to DOC Community Response Unit supervisor Jim McGinnis, who oversees the six NCI officers in Seattle (at least one in each precinct), the program may be in jeopardy due to possible legislative budget cuts and reallocation of funds within the department.

And, he said, there are philosophical conflicts as well.

"Some people in the Department of Corrections are more bent toward social programs and don't like partnerships with the police," he said. "There is very strong resistance inside the department."

McGinnis said that he believes the NCI program could even be "totally gone" by this summer.

While it is difficult to find anyone inside or outside the department to speak negatively of the program - or to support McGinnis' gloomy forecast - it is equally difficult to find anyone who will guarantee its future, especially with state budget cuts looming this legislative session.

"There's no way to tell how deep those cuts could be," said Kevin Bovenkamp, acting West Central Region administrator. "It's possible that [the NCI] program could be impacted."

Muskelly said that losing this program would be "devastating" to the community.

Community involvement

Another relatively new initiative that targets high-risk offenders is the Community Accountability Board program.

In this program, corrections officers and community volunteers meet with released offenders who have violated their release agreement and are at risk of being returned to prison or jail. These meetings are designed to be casual and open, and offenders are encouraged to discuss any problems they are having with re-entry, including problems with the DOC.

In a recent meeting in the Central Area, two men convicted of domestic violence spoke openly about their situations and received specific advice on finding affordable housing, behavioral training classes and transportation.

Currently, there are eight accountability boards in the West Central Region, and four more are expected to be added in April.

The state's Going Home Initiative is a $2 million, federally-funded pilot program that targets the highest-risk, most-violent offenders set to be released to King and Pierce counties. It includes extensive in-prison training, treatment and education, and provides short- and long-term community support once the offender is released.

Each offender is linked to a neighborhood readiness team that connects with offenders while they are still in prison, using videoconferencing and other technological means.

Once the offender is released, the team then provides a wide range of transitional support.

The offender also receives a housing stipend for the first 90 days after release.

The Central Area program now has five readiness teams in place and has managed 12 offenders released to the area since last September. According to the program's local community advisor EuGene Lewis, pastor of the Emerald City Community Church, one of those offenders has returned to prison while others have had minor violations.

He said he is encouraged by how responsive the group has been.

"It has gone very well," he said. "They are manageable. Most of them are just frightened."

According to the DOC, of the 40 adults who have entered the community stage in all three counties, one has committed a new crime involving a victim. Nine out of 105 juveniles in the same phase of the program have committed a new crime involving a victim.

This pilot ends in June 2006 and will be reviewed and assessed, along with similar programs running simultaneously in other states, to determine whether it will receive further funding.

About 50 more adult offenders are expected to be released into the program in King County over the next 18 months.

Loss of Weed & Seed

Locally, a similar program being funded by King County and administered by the Central Area Motivation Program will be initiated this month.

Under this program, about 200 adult King County Jail inmates will be selected for expanded intervention and counseling while in jail and targeted transitional support, including employment assistance, upon release.

Counter this possible good news, however, with the news that $250,000 of the Central Weed & Seed funding will run out after this year and will not be renewed.

The community - or Seed - portion of this program has, for the last nine years, helped fund a wide variety of community training and youth outreach services.

The enforcement side of the program, provided the East Precinct with funds to concentrate special enforcement efforts, including increased bike patrols and drug buy-bust operations, in known crime hotspots. It also funded a variety of police department community outreach programs.

As government funds directed toward local corrections issues continue to shrink, and as the funding process becomes more fragmented and increasingly more reliant on short-term grants and private donations, this give-and-take struggle for dollars is likely to continue.

It's much like squeezing a balloon in the middle: While one part gets smaller, another part gets larger. Fortunately for the Central Area, one of the hands squeezing this proverbial balloon belongs to a 72-year-old resident who won't take "no" for an answer.

"I've really seen a lot of change. But before I leave this world, I'm going to see a lot more changes," Muskelly said. "I'm going to be the one out there making it happen. I'm going to be pushing."

Freelance writer Dennis Pauley can be reached at editor@capitolhill

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