Prisoner Reentry, Recidivism, and FOCUS Offender Re-entry Mentoring Program

Courtney S. Coffman

University of Colorado at Denver, School of Public Affairs
PUAD 5628 Urban Social Problems
April 1, 2012

Analysis of the Social Problem

The issue of how to best integrate prisoners back into society after they have successfully served their sentences remains of imperative importance for the criminal justice system, and for society at large. When individuals are released with few viable options, scarce resources, insufficient support, and no plan for the future, it becomes increasingly likely that they will revert to known patterns of behavior. The existence and quality of support programs offered to individuals as they exit incarceration and re-enter the community can often mean the difference between a repeat offense and successful reintegration and self-sufficiency.

The magnitude of the prisoner reentry issue is significantly enhanced due to the increasing rate of imprisonment in the United States. Between 1987 and 2007 the number of people incarcerated in the country increased by 173%, so that in 2008, 2.3 million people were estimated to be in prison or jail (Ríos and Greene, 2009, p. iv). These increased incarceration rates can be explained by the politically motivated shift, starting in the 1970’s, towards stricter law enforcement and sentencing strategies, which emphasized “overcriminalization, excessive punishment, racially skewed drug enforcement, overfunding of prisons and underfunding of everything else” (Stuntz, 2006, p. 781-782). Of this growing imprisoned population, 93% are released to reenter society at some point in their lives (Bushway, 2006, p. 562). Those individuals then face a multitude of challenges as they attempt to rebuild their lives, including: substance abuse issues, mental health needs, unemployment, homelessness, low levels of education, poverty, and impediments to public assistance, among others (Wheeler and Patterson, 2008, p. 145). Not surprisingly, faced with these barriers, a large quantity of those reentering society after incarceration become criminal reoffenders.

The days and weeks immediately following release from incarceration are imperative for the success and safety of the individual and the community. During this time period, recently released offenders experience the highest rates of new crime and/or parole violations, as well as the greatest risk of death: their death rate during this period has been measured as 12 times that of the average population (National Research Council of the National Academies, 2007, p. 2).

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, within three years of release, 67.5% of prisoners released in 1994 were arrested for a new crime, 46.9% were convicted of a new crime, and 51.8% were re-imprisoned (See Figure 1, below) (Langan and Levin, 2002, p. 1). In 1999, individuals within the three year period of reentry accounted for almost 20% of all arrests, nationally (Bushway, 2006, p. 562). More recently, a survey conducted by the Pew Center on the States and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) found that 45.4 % of individuals released from incarceration in 1999 and 43.3% of those released in 2004 returned to prison within three years (The Pew Center on the States, 2011, p. 2). Although the study shows a slightly decreased rate of re-incarceration from 1994 to 2004, it remained relatively high.

In Colorado, the crime rate between 1982 and 2007 decreased by 58%, to 3,004 per 100,000 population, while spending within the criminal justice system increased by 1188% from 1982 to 2007 (See Figure 2, below) (Cataldo et al., 2011, p. 77). While that figure does not appear to be adjusted for inflation, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that inflation increased by only 115% during that same time period (U.S. Department of Labor). This dramatic increase in spending can be examined through the lens of the national shift towards stricter law enforcement and sentencing, which subsequently increased Colorado’s expenditures. It can be further explained by the finding that in 2007, nearly 2,100 people were imprisoned because of a technical violation of their parole, having committed no new crime (Ríos and Greene, 2009, p.9). Colorado’s incarceration rate in 2007 was slightly above the national average, at 465 people in state prison per 100,000 population (Ríos and Greene, 2009, p. iv). Additionally, Colorado had a high relative recidivism rate, with 64% of individuals released from the Department of Corrections in 2002 encountering a new arrest within three years of discharge (Ríos and Greene, 2009, p. iv).

Often, these newly released offenders are returning in large quantities to very concentrated urban areas. According to research by the Urban Institute, offenders often return to major cities and counties within major metropolitan areas, frequently to certain neighborhoods areas within these areas (La Vigne, Solomon, Beckman, & Dedel, 2006, p. 10). Because of the increased risk for reoffending, these concentrated communities consequently endure increased public safety concerns, as well as increased fear of crime (p. 10-12). Additionally, it is likely that social factors such as concentrated poverty, limited economic opportunity, and social isolation contributed to high levels of crime initially, meaning that newly released prisoners are often returning to the dysfunctional environments which contributed to their likelihood to offend in the first place. These environments are often located within “core counties,” which contain the largest city within a metropolitan area (Lynch & Sabol, 2001, p. 15).

Although the Boulder area is often considered to have higher income rates and lower crime rates than the core Denver area, it too suffers from the problems of poverty and crime. While the U.S. Census Bureau measured that 19.2% of Denver County residents lived below the poverty line between 2006-2010, Boulder County also had a substantial rate of 12.8% for the same period (2012). Additionally, the number of criminal filings in 2010 for Denver County’s 2nd Judicial District and Boulder County’s 20th Judicial District were comparable, when adjusted for population size. Denver County reported 4,343 criminal filings (Cataldo et al., 2011, p. 40) for its population of 600,158 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012) coming to a rate of .72%, while Boulder County reported 2,071 criminal filings (Cataldo et al., 2011, p. 40) for its population of 294,567 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012) for a rate of .70%. The recidivism rate for Boulder County is estimated at 60% (The Denver Foundation, 2011). In 2010, the city of Boulder specifically, according to the city’s website, had a total of 8,297 reported crimes, for their population of 103,600, which was up slightly from the previous year (City of Boulder, 2012).

Significant research has been conducted around the issue of how to best reduce recidivism. According to their studies within the field of Social Work, Wheeler and Patterson found that, of the services that are most commonly used to facilitate prisoner reentry, vocational training, work release, prerelease programs appear to be the most effective at reducing recidivism  (2008, p. 145). Alternatively, findings by the National Research Council of the National Academies suggest that substance abuse and cognitive behavioral therapy significantly lower recidivism (2007, p. 2). Additionally, a 2006 study by the Office of Research and Statistics within the Colorado Department of Public Safety, found that individuals in Colorado community corrections facilities tended to be more successful if they were older, employed, had higher levels of education, and participated in programming such as family services, education, mental health, budgeting, etc. (Hetz-Burrell and English, 2006, p. 8-9). These various findings suggest that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reducing recidivism; an integrated and individualized method is necessary. However, because the risks immediately upon release are so pronounced, universally, it is vital that “a person should not leave prison without an immediately available person and plan for postrelease life,” in order to meet basic and immediate needs (National Research Council of the National Academies, 2007, p. 3).

 The FOCUS Offender Re-entry Mentoring Program

The FOCUS (Facilitating Offenders Seeking Uplifting Situations) Offender Re-entry Mentoring Program, serving Boulder County, Colorado, employs a unique approach and structure in dealing with the persistent social problem of how to best reengage previous offenders into society as they exit the criminal justice system. While the organization is not the only offender mentoring program in the country, its underlying philosophy and assumptions, as well as its use of secular-religious partnerships, distinguish it from many others. FOCUS is built upon the fundamental belief that “every human being is valuable, and deserves a chance to make a reasonable and stable life” (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012). This certainty in the value of human life leads to a methodology grounded in empathy: often the change process is not straightforward and linear. Change is fundamentally difficult, and sometimes people need “a second chance, and a third chance, and sometimes a fourth chance,” before they can accomplish it, especially when they have been implicitly taught all of their lives that they are not valuable (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012). The organization makes explicit their intention to build social capital within the community, the belief that “my good [is] wrapped up in your good” (FOCUS Offender Re-entry Mentoring Program). FOCUS seeks to unite this philosophy with best practices in offender reentry to create sustained change within the Boulder community.

FOCUS emerged from the Restoring the Soul Community Partnerships taskforce, a secular organization comprised of nonprofit agencies and religious congregations working to explore how their collaboration could serve the community (FOCUS Offender Re-entry Mentoring Program). In 2004, the organization’s Advisory Board discovered that Boulder County lacked an effective program to help offenders in the reentry process: thus the idea for FOCUS was born. The taskforce did intensive research, and felt that mentoring was one way in which they had the capacity to contribute to alleviating this problem (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012). Subsequently, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle enthusiastically signed on to the organization’s mission. The organization then drafted and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with both the Boulder County Jail and the 20th Judicial District Probation Department. The program’s operation started with one mentor in the field, in April of 2005 (FOCUS Offender Re-entry Mentoring Program).

The process was far from smooth sailing in the beginning. The organization realized that trying to navigate the criminal justice system, which at that time did not yet have the mindset of rehabilitation, was very difficult. Yet the program persevered, while remaining constantly flexible, and adaptive to the insights from the mentor and mentee. By 2006, the program had seven mentors in operation (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012). Slow and steady growth provided that over 12 mentors were active by 2008, and clients began successfully graduating from the program (FOCUS Offender Re-entry Mentoring Program). The program initially ran with only one part-time staff member, Executive Director Tania Leontov, and the efforts of volunteers.

The target population that the program is designed to serve are offenders transitioning from the Boulder County Jail, of both genders, ages 18 and up. Additionally, they customarily exclude people with certain characteristics from their pool of prospective mentees, such as: individuals with sustained histories of violence, individuals with profound mental illness, and individuals with a history of sexual offenses, as these individuals often require much more intensive and specialized care than the program could provide (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012). However, staying true to their precedent of flexibility, if the Boulder County Sheriff believes that someone with one of the specified characteristics could be genuinely helped by the program, the organization will suspend the exclusion, as they truly “want to be helpful in any way [they] can” (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012). Additionally, the program attempts to choose mentees who have already pled guilty and/or been sentenced, because then there is a better chance that they will remain in the Boulder area long enough for the program to be effective, as opposed to getting transferred to other jurisdictions (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012).

The program is funded primarily through foundations and public organizations. When it initially began its work in 2005, it received funding from a Colorado Compassion Initiative award and a small grant from Wells Fargo (FOCUS Offender Re-entry Mentoring Program). In 2007, FOCUS won the NOVA Award for civic engagement from the Community Foundation. Additionally, the Boulder County Commissioners began funding the program in 2008. Its current funders include: the Anschutz Family Foundation, Boulder County Commissioners, Community Foundation of Boulder County, Longmont Community Foundation, Denver Foundation, Daniels Foundation, Wells Fargo Community Foundation, Justice Assistance Grant, Social Venture Partners, Boulder County Jail, Brett Family Foundation, Khyentse Foundation, and Saint Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church (FOCUS Offender Re-entry Mentoring Program). Just recently, the City of Boulder decided to financially support the organization as well (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012). The organization is also in the process of attempting to solicit more financial support in the form of donations from individuals, although it has been a difficult process because often, people do not feel sympathetic to past offenders (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012).

The FOCUS Advisory Council and Review Board, comprised of professionals within the fields of criminal justice and psychotherapy, work to inform and guide the organization’s work. The foundation of the program’s operation is the partnership with the Boulder County Jail, without which, the program would not be possible (FOCUS Offender Re-entry Mentoring Program). Staff members recruit both mentors and mentees by making presentations at various congregations, community events, and within the jail. People also find out about the organization through word of mouth. When an offender applies for the program, the application is screened by the organization’s  liaison at the jail for appropriateness for the program. If believed to be a match, the application is forwarded to the organization’s staff, which attempts to create a connection with a waiting mentor (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012).

The organization employs a multidimensional theory of change in conceptualizing how the program is meant to work. FOCUS volunteer mentors come from many varying walks of life, but share an underlying compassion for the difficulty of the situations that reentering individuals must face. The requirements for being a mentor include: being over the age of 25, the ability to make a commitment of at least one year, the agreement to spend one to two hours a week with a mentee, and a commitment to holding a “nonjudgmental perspective” (FOCUS Offender Re-entry Mentoring Program). Current mentors include students, professionals, retirees, congregation members, and academics. Most do not have any experience navigating the criminal justice system going into the experience, thus the organization requires extensive training and provides ongoing support. The 15 hour initial volunteer training consists of workshops and a two hour orientation at the Boulder County Jail. Following the initial training, mentors receive ongoing, monthly training sessions. (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012).

The core of the initial workshop training focuses on thetechnique of Motivational Interviewing, which is fundamentally nonaggressiveand nonjudgmental. Tania Leontov argues that “the process of helping people can be very aggressive” in that it is often domineering and critical of past decisions. By utilizing the Motivational Interviewing technique, mentors make it clear to mentees that “you are driving the boat – I am only here to facilitate you in creating the life that you want” (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012). The mentor stresses that this is a voluntary, creative relationship that can be ended at any time by either party. Importantly, the mentor is taught to ask permission before making a suggestion to the mentee, and to discuss possible choices in a situation. The goal of the technique is to provide support and encouragement, while growing the self-esteem of the mentee (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012).

The rest of the workshop training consists of a variety of topics that prepare the mentor for the work ahead of them. The “Trends in Criminal Thinking” workshop educates mentors about the possibility that their mentee might have a totally different “social contract” than that to which they are accustomed. As a result of having been victimized themselves, past offenders are often manipulative, impulsive, interested in short term gratification, and blind to the long-term consequences of their actions (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012). The “Mental Illness and Substance Abuse in the Offender Population” workshop gives key information about the nature of these issues, and their prevalence in the offender population. The “The Art and Science of Resilience” workshop builds upon the idea of empowering another person so that they stop seeing themselves as a victim and start taking responsibility for their own lives. Finally, the “FOCUS Policies and Procedures” workshop prepares them of the organization’s expectations for the role of a mentor (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012).

The two main goals of the mentor-mentee relationship are to meet both the material and social needs of the mentee, with the overarching goal of using the relationship as a vessel to build social capital within the community. Preferably, mentors meet their mentees for the first time while they are still incarcerated, which allows time for significant planning to take place. Mentors are instructed to take a comprehensive Needs Assessment of the mentee, although they are encouraged to complete it in as flexible and informal a way as feels appropriate. During this period, mentors also assist mentees in creating an Action Plan of the three most important areas of their lives in which they want to make a difference. Mentors then work to break the plan down into small components, or “do-able bits,” so that mentees feel a sense of accomplishment in their progress, and don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012). Mentors work to help secure basic needs, such as housing, ahead of release.

Ideally, the mentor is there to pick the mentee up the day that they are released from jail. Often, mentees have few resources on them, as they are provided with only one bus token and “exactly what they had when they were arrested” (Restoring the Soul: Community Partnerships Serving Boulder County). The presence and support of the mentor on that first day in providing transportation, and connecting the mentee to four or five critical resources (such as mental health medications, clothing, social services for food stamps, etc.) makes an enormous difference in the lives of mentees (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012). The organization’s staff assists the mentor with the unfamiliar process of making referrals to other agencies and connecting the mentee to needed resources.

As the ongoing relationship develops, the two individuals have the freedom and flexibility to define their weekly activities together. The goal is not so much the actual activities, but the formation of a healthy, supportive relationship, in which the mentee feels like “they have someone in their corner that cares about them” (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012). In addition to attending monthly ongoing trainings, mentors also complete a Mentor Report every week, and a Life Skills Matrix every two months (the latter of which measures the mentees goals on securing employment, permanent housing, resolving their court status, etc.). Additionally, mentor advisors, who are volunteers within the psychotherapy field, meet once a month with mentors to work through any emotional issues they may be having, or questions they might have about the behavior of their mentees (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012).

On average, the successful mentor-mentee relationship lasts between 14 and 16 months. Once the mentee’s life appears to have stabilized, one of the individuals will often initiate a “soft close,” in which the weekly meetings are stopped or decreased, but the mentee still knows that they can call the mentor if they get into a situation where they need help (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012).

In some ways, it is difficult to evaluate the work of the organization. Executive Director Tania Leontov readily admits that not everybody completes their program successfully: sometimes people slide back into their old ways of life in spite of the mentor, the relationship is not a good fit, or a mentee is suddenly sent out of state on additional criminal charges. The organization estimates that between 23 and 30 mentees are currently being served by the program (presumably, the “soft close” makes it difficult to calculate precisely), and it hopes to soon build its capacity to 50 clients. FOCUS has submitted all of its data to a third party evaluator, who is currently conducting a formal evaluation, however the results have yet to come in. The organization’s informal evaluations have revealed an 84% success rate (lack of recidivism) among mentees who have completed the program. Since its inception in 2005, approximately 20 people have successfully graduated from the program, as it remains relatively small (T. Leontov, personal communication, March 22, 2012).

Though the process is sometimes slow, circular, and frustrating, the staff at FOCUS displays an unwavering conviction in the value of their work and unswerving empathy for the program’s clients. Tania Leontov asserts, “The chaos and confusion of the people we work with is really heart-rending. It takes enormous personal strength and determination for them to overcome the issues that they have [. . .] Sometimes, I look at one of these cases and think ‘if I were on the street, even though I’m a really determined person […] I don’t know if I could make it,’ because it’s so hard” (personal communication, March 22, 2012). The program’s creativity, flexibility, and eagerness to embrace the humanity in all people, distinguish FOCUS as a unique answer to one of the nation’s most problematic social problems.


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