Ex-inmate housing under fire
SMOC success rate disputed, defended
August 14. 2006
Lee Hammel Telegram & Gazette Worcester Telegram & Gazette
WORCESTER: Amid allegations that it is a furtive, uncooperative organization running what could be the least popular program in Massachusetts, the South Middlesex Opportunity Council has released statistics showing the number of former prison inmates it has placed in housing and where that housing is located.

The Framingham-based nonprofit social services agency has a new four-year contract to find housing for inmates being released from the state's 17 state prisons.  While SMOC has won few friends in the Worcester neighborhoods where it is attempting to create programs to house substance abusers, what really gets neighborhoods and politicians stirred up is the contract it has had with the state Department of Correction, since 2003, in which sex offenders comprise 36 percent of the former inmates for whom the agency has found housing.

But officials of SMOC and Department of Correction alike proclaim the success of the Reentry Housing Program that was created, in part, because the state's emergency shelters found themselves dealing with too many of the prisons former inmates.

The Correction Department has come under fire from state Rep. Robert P. Spellane, D-Worcester, for what he called lack of oversight of the program.  But SMOC produced figures at the request of the Telegram & Gazette showing the results of its inmate placement program from July 1, 2003, through March 31 of this year.

SMOC found housing for every one of the 289 inmates who requested it, according to Kelley Doel, SMOC director of economic development.  For 103 of them, or 34.9 percent, SMOC found permanent housing.  It found transitional housing such as lodging houses for 153, or nearly half of them.

But for 43 ex-inmates, or 15.9 percent, SMOC's RHP program found only emergency shelters.  "So far nobody's had to sleep on the streets," Ms. Doel said. "Only 16 percent ended up in shelters.  And those are usually folks who drop out of the program," she said.

The Department of Correction has developed new standards to monitor SMOC's performance under the new contract.  One is to decrease the time former inmates spend in temporary housing before getting into permanent housing, according to Gerri Riley, Department of Correction director of reentry services.

Recidivism, the rate at which inmates return to prison for violating the law after they're released is one of the important measures in the criminal justice system.  That rate is 39 percent to 41 percent for all Massachusetts state prison inmates, according to Department of Correction spokeswoman Diane Wiffin.

Final figures are not available for the 3-year-old RHP.  But DOC developed preliminary figures showing that Reentry Housing Program participants had an 8 percent recidivism rate after one year.  That is half the 16 percent rate of DOC inmates in general after one year, Ms. Riley said.  "Our goal is to reduce recidivism.  We're thrilled with the preliminary data we're looking at now," she said.

Neighborhood advocates complain that SMOC is partly responsible for what they see as the inundation of the city by sex offenders.  But SMOC's figures show that RHP has located only six sex offenders in Worcester shelters in 2-3/4 years, and three sex offenders in permanent housing, for a total of nine sex offenders in that period.

With Worcester's population of 172,648 in 2000, or 2.7 percent of the state's population, 6.4 percent of sex offenders for whom the Housing Reentry Program sought housing found it here.

District 4 Councilor Barbara G. Haller said, "SMOC is putting them in shelters. It's wrong. .

"I can understand they've got to find housing, but they shouldn't get credit for finding housing for people they haven't found housing for." said Ms. Haller, a strong critic of SMOC.  "I think it's a failure, not a success."

Ms. Doel conceded that "Maybe the shelter people are not a success," but the numbers are "reasonable," given the people with whom the program deals.  She said she would like to see the program improve, but that she considers it a success overall.

Mr. Spellane, who is particularly critical of SMOC and its DOC contract, did not return several telephone calls to comment on the figures.  But he said in an e-mail, "My underlying premise remains unchanged.

"The agency responsible for awarding the contract has no oversight.  It is a clear case of the foxes guarding the henhouse ... without independent audit or oversight the entire report remains in question."

James T. Cuddy, South Middlesex Opportunity Council executive director, never misses an opportunity to proclaim his policy of not admitting sex offenders, arsonists or people convicted of violent crimes to live in SMOC residential programs at least programs other than SMOC's emergency shelters such as People in Peril at 701 Main St., which admits anyone.

And Gerard Desilets, SMOC planning director, said that SMOC's sober houses and its lodging houses depend on peer support to keep residents sober, and sex offenders would not fit into that framework.

Ms. Haller called the nonprofit's officials "hired guns.  There's something in their own public philosophy that sex offenders and violent crimes don't mix in their programs," she said.

Asked why SMOC deals in such an unpopular population, Ms. Doel said, "We don't want to see anybody living homeless on the street.  It's not safe for the community.  Public safety is a top priority for us.  Sex offenders are renting next door to someone, whether SMOC is assisting them or not.  If you're going to have an ex-offender living next door to you, wouldn't you feel better if there was somebody working with them rather than them being left to their own devices?"

Under the DOC contract, besides finding housing, SMOC also refers ex-inmates to services such as mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, employment search, education, skills training and parenting classes.  "SMOC is not part of the public safety problem.  It's part of the solution," Ms. Doel said.

Worcester police agree.

While police had always gotten cooperation from the PIP regarding who was staying at the shelter, Sgt. Michael A. Cappabianca said a system was devised in March in which police tell PIP whenever registered sex offenders claim they are living at the shelter, and PIP e-mails police and probation officers daily with which sex offenders actually are staying there.

With more than 800 sex offenders, classified and unclassified, living or working in Worcester, PIP's cooperation has made life easier for the police, resulting in a number of sex offender arrests, according to the sergeant, a supervisor in the Special Crimes unit that investigates sex crimes.

Thomas A. Turco III, Worcester Superior Court chief probation officer, said, "It's helped us a lot because we're able to absolutely track an offender."

The new system was set up after a meeting involving Chief Gary J. Gemme and probation and PIP officials, after state Reps. Spellane and John P. Fresolo, D-Worcester, held a press conference in March. Mr. Spellane had said that SMOC placed a large number of sex offenders in the PIP shelter and that 13 Level 3 sex offenders or those appealing that status were living at PIP over the previous eight weeks.

Sgt. Cappabianca said he understands why people think there are more sex offenders at PIP than there really are.

When he checked the most recent statistics 14 sex offenders had told Worcester police they would be living at PIP, but PIP confirmed that only seven of them actually were there, he said.

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