Special Reports

Work-release supporters say they save as many as they can

Defenders of Pierce County work-release programs know they’re the neighbors no one wants.

“Anywhere you try to move us, the neighborhood is going to say, ‘Not in my neighborhood,’ said the Rev. Leo C. Brown, founder of Progress House Association, which runs one of three state-supported work-release programs in Pierce County.

A News Tribune analysis of the work-release system confirms an oft-repeated complaint from Pierce County Prosecutor Gerry Horne: The county receives more than its fair share of the state’s ex-convicts leaving prison, largely because local work-release programs accept many inmates who started their criminal careers elsewhere.

Brown knows the argument well. He’s heard Horne make it repeatedly.

On one point, Brown and the prosecutor agree. It’s reasonable for Pierce County to take care of home-grown offenders, and resist placement of imports.

“Sure it is,” he said, noting that most Progress House inmates are local, and crediting Horne for raising the issue with the state.

The News Tribune’s analysis tends to support Brown’s claim – for 2005, at least. Among the 449 inmates who entered county work-release centers last year, 100 had no prior convictions in Pierce County. Of that group of imports, only 13 entered Progress House.

The rest were divided between Lincoln Park and RAP houses, a smaller pair of work-release centers that cater to offenders with developmental disabilities or mental illness. They are the only work-release facilities in the state that offer such treatment – a fact Horne bemoans.

State corrections leaders get the point, said Steve Johnson, a high-ranking Department of Corrections field administrator who oversees the region that includes Pierce County work-release sites. The idea of providing similar services elsewhere is on the table, he said.

Johnson agreed that the state’s work-release philosophy hinges on placing inmates where they have the best chance to stay trouble-free. Typically, that means family ties, prior residence or past employment in a community.

Inmates of Lincoln Park and RAP, often housed in an unfamiliar community, lack such connections.

“What you’re seeing with RAP and Lincoln Park is something that doesn’t speak to that,” Johnson said. “We recognize that. We’ve identified the need is there, and we will be addressing that need as we expand throughout the state.”

The decisions that led to placing the three work-release centers in Pierce County stretch back four decades. Progress House opened in the early 1970s, sparked by Brown’s vision of a prison ministry. Lincoln Park and RAP opened in 1981, according to News Tribune archives.

State corrections leaders could provide no detail on how the sites were originally chosen.

All three are contract facilities – the state takes charge of inmates, their counseling and work plans, while the contractors provide housing and meals.

The state retains authority over location of work-release sites. Progress House, currently in the Remann Hall juvenile justice center on Sixth Avenue, needs a new home. The state hopes to place it in Lakewood, despite fierce local opposition. The controversy is unresolved.

In any debate about the virtues of work release, one side starts with built-in disadvantages. For one thing, work-release inmates are convicted criminals – no getting around it.

Second, a good share of inmates – almost half – will be convicted of a new felony within five years, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice.

So, how do you defend a rehabilitation program whose clients seem to fail almost half the time? Brown argues the opposite – by the measure of recidivism, more than half of the inmates succeed.

“You’re helping the ones that do make it,” Brown said. “And you’re also providing an opportunity to those that don’t. In society you should want to do all you can to save as many lives as you can.”

Brown argues that blaming work release for inmates who commit new crimes isn’t quite fair. A felon might spend a few months in work release, compared to a few years in the prison system. Rehabilitation needs to take place there, too, he argued – though he recognizes that when it comes to work release, some minds can’t be changed.

“Really, Gerry Horne just doesn’t believe in the rehabilitation of prisoners and that’s the bottom line on it,” Brown said. “He doesn’t believe their lives can be changed, and that’s real sad.”