Albuquerque Journal

Center Offers Means To Avoid Prison

Story by Carla Crowder Photos by Richard Pipes Of the Journal

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Across from a tattoo parlor near downtown sits a rather nondescript tan building that could be a school, or offices.

Until its current owners took over in July, the Department of Social Services used the building as a food distribution center. Workers mostly passed out cheese. Now it's full of air-conditioner parts, classrooms, some probation officers. And a lot of last chances.

"This is it before prison," says Robert Williams, a husky 18-year-old who sings like a member of a gospel choir as he flips through instruction manuals for fixing heaters and refrigerators.

At 16, Williams was arrested with two loaded 9 mm handguns he'd traded for six crack rocks. The charge he's working off is possession of cocaine with intent to sell. But with a background limited to misdemeanors and drug and gun crimes, Williams qualifies for what's known as an intermediate sentence. He doesn't have to do hard prison time as long as he shows up at the Wake County Day Incarceration Center by 7:30 a.m. each weekday, follows the rules while there and doesn't break any more laws.

The center is one of Wake County's responses to sentencing reforms in North Carolina that require communities to offer alternatives to hard time. The men who run the place describe it
as "one-stop shopping" for those on probation. General Equivalency Diploma classes, drug testing and therapy, job training and probation officers are housed under one roof.

"Before, we'd basically locked them up for a short time and sent them back unprepared and angry," said Todd Edwards, coordinator of the private, nonprofit corporation that operates the center.

Wiring wall in classroom

Samuel Hinton, left, and Luke
Lavoie wire a wall in the
electrical wiring classroom. Both
men have been convicted of
nonviolent crimes, but instead of
sending them to prison, judges
ordered them to attend
job-training programs at the
Wake County Day Incarceration
Center in Raleigh, N.C.

Instead of trying to build its way out from under a crime avalanche only by adding costly prisons, North Carolina began diverting certain criminals into rehabilitation and education programs within communities.

Take someone who forges checks or breaks into cars just to buy drugs: "If you make that person take responsibility for themselves and their crime so that they have to get a job, pay restitution to their victim, you stand a lot better chance of breaking the cycle of crime than if you put them in prison for a very short period of time," said Guilford County Superior Court Judge Tom Ross, who helped write the structured-sentencing laws. "Then boom, they're right back out. And where do they go? Right back into the same neighborhood, stealing again."

Along with day-reporting centers such as the one in Wake County, North Carolina has expanded alternative corrections programs to include electronic monitoring, boot camps, community service programs and house arrest. Drug rehab and education programs go hand in hand with many of these.

Cost effective

The goal is to reserve the $57-a-day prison beds for violent criminals and send others to alternatives, which range in cost from $5-a-day house arrest to $40-a-day boot camps.

In 1996, the Wake County center spent an average of $33.61 per offender per day. About 120 criminals were sent there for six-month programs, said Tom McLoughlin, a retired New York City police detective who runs the center. According to figures provided by McLoughlin, the center saved the state and county a combined $523,121 last year in jail and prison space. Edwards and McLoughlin say more time and more evaluation is necessary to figure out how many offenders the center is saving from prison.

"We know we're reducing recidivism while they're with us," Edwards said. Only 5 percent were arrested on new charges during their time reporting to the center. However, 45 percent violated conditions of their probation because of positive drug tests, failure to report or other technical violations, Edwards said. That's about the same rate as regular probationers not undergoing day treatment.

Judges and lawmakers realize that allowing criminals to go home at night can be risky. It's not a real vote-getter at election time. So to bolster community corrections, the state has hired more than 500 probation officers, said Robert Guy, assistant director of probation and parole in North Carolina.

In the toughest cases, supervision is so tight that teams of two officers have case loads of 25 probationers. Formerly, one officer could have 120 cases, Guy said. Smaller case loads give the officer "more quality time to work with the offender, to find them a job, get them drug tested," he said.

Finding the money

Though these reforms should save the state money in the long run, the short run -- building prisons, opening community corrections centers and hiring probation officers -- has been costly. Where did they get the money?

"Our state has been downsizing government. And we've got a pretty good revenue base," Guy said. In some cases, cutbacks in other state agencies have gone into corrections.

All the criminals assigned to the Wake County center are also on probation. Showing up at the center from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. is part of their probationary sentence. Edwards candidly points out that his clients are at "the bottom of the barrel," with prison as the next stop. But to McLoughlin, the power of this program is giving those guys a chance to pull themselves out of their traps.

"It's about individual accountability and personal responsibility. This is your last shot to do something for yourself," he said.
Instead of a prison routine ruled by buzzers and intercom announcements, the offenders must find their way to the center and are not locked in once there.

"The whole program relies on the offenders' behavior being modified, not monitored," McLoughlin said.
Luke Lavoie, a crew-cut 18-year-old from the town of Cary outside Raleigh, was on probation when he was arrested for credit-card fraud.

"Somebody else stole it. I just went to the mall," Lavoie said from the center's electrical-wiring room. At sentencing, the judge had a choice of sending him to prison or an intensive probation program. He told me I was "skating on thin ice with hot blades," Lavoie said. Lavoie is two weeks away from finishing up the 11-week electrical wiring program at the center. Instructor Mike Meyers teaches the same class at a nearby technical college. In five months of teaching at the center, four of his students have been hired as electrical helpers for $8 an hour, Meyers said. "This is a career, not flipping burgers," Lavoie said.

Copyright © 1997 Albuquerque Journal

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Albuquerque Journal