By Steven McQueen
Chief of Police, Winooski, Vermont
he Winooski Police Department, with 16 sworn officers, manages an offender reentry program for 130 felons and offenders in partnership with the Winooski Community Justice Center. The program targets serious and violent offenders who will be returning to Winooski on conditional reentry status. The Department of Corrections, which administers the offender reentry program, works collaboratively with the Winooski Community Justice Center—a division of the Winooski Police Department—toward the mutual goal of reducing crime in the community.
Why Manage an Offender Reentry Program?
According to the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC), Winooski (population 6,800) was home to 242 individuals supervised by the DOC in 2005. Roughly 130 individuals are supervised by the Burlington Community Service Center, the supervising entity for higher-risk offenders. Approximately 24 percent of Winooski students have a family member who is under the supervision of the DOC.
The police in Winooski see it as their responsibility to help maintain a safe and happy community, and they believe offender reentry provides the best protection to the community from future criminal acts that might be committed by offenders returning after incarceration.
The program works with offenders to help them become productive and responsible members of society. It addresses offenders’ reintegration needs, helps them reconnect to the community in a positive and constructive way, and helps them repair some of the harm they have caused to the community and their victims. At the heart of offender reentry are the goals of preventing further victimization and promoting a safer community.
How the Offender Reentry Program Works in Winooski
Qualifying offenders receive financial assistance for housing and basic needs, such as a bus pass, winter or work clothing, and apartment basics. They also receive assistance with obtaining the identification needed for work, mentorship in decision making, access to a group of people interested in their success, the opportunity to repair some of the harm they have caused the community, encouragement, and acceptance.
A reentry panel meets regularly with each offender to develop and then review a reentry plan and provide guidance to the offender. Reentry panels consist of a police officer, a victim’s advocate, a probation and parole officer, the city’s offender reentry coordinator, and community volunteers who agree to serve as mentors.
Winooski police officers help guide and supervise offenders. They are in the best position to observe possible problem behaviors that the offender displays and can help correct those behaviors at the earliest possible stage of the program.
The Winooski Offender Reentry Program partners with city and state agencies to help offenders get the help they need. The city’s parks department, the county’s domestic violence task force, and the state’s human services department are among the many organizations that are committed to the success of the program.
The Vermont Department of Corrections provides primary funding for the reentry program, with a 25 percent match by the City of Winooski. The city contributes in-kind services that include office space, office supplies, administrative support, and so on. The DOC contributes $55,000 toward the reentry program. Nevertheless, Winooski has pledged to continue providing reentry services even if the direct funding were eliminated.
An oversight committee chaired by the chief of police reviews referrals provided by the offender reentry coordinator to make sure not only that each offender meets guidelines but also that the program is able to completely meet the needs of the offender (to include housing issues, job prospects, and family support) before making a decision to accept any offender into the program.
Successes and Failures
The program has been in full operation for two years. Seven offenders are now enrolled in the program. One offender has graduated from the program, and two offenders moved from the area before completing the program.
Most returning offenders lack the necessary social skills to reintegrate successfully, but in Vermont, about 80 percent of the individuals returning to the community, given the chance, can and will make positive changes in their lives. The other 20 percent are contained and controlled through law enforcement action.
IACP Smaller Agency Technical Assistance Program 800-THE-IACP, extension 262.