Getting Beyond Prison: A Vermont Case Study

(Photo: AP/Toby Talbot)

Inmates walk through the yard at Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland, Vermont, in 2008.

Seated in an office of the Montpelier City Hall on a recent April morning, an ex-criminal offender whom we’ll call Gene sat playing a parlor game of sorts with three community volunteers.

One by one, the four participants took turns answering the questions printed on a box of cards that they passed around, which included such conversation starters as: “What’s your basic philosophy of life?” “What’s your fondest memory?” and “On your deathbed, what will be your last thought?”

It was something of an unlikely exercise for Gene, who spent ten years behind bars for a sexual assault and now is in his mid-thirties. But in the18 months since Gene has been out of prison, he hasn’t violated any of his stringent probation conditions, and hasn’t reoffended. And his probation officer in part credits it to his participation in this and other meetings run by Circles of Support and Accountability, a prison re-entry program run by the state of Vermont.

Gene’s success story is actually fairly typical of program participants, say organizers with the initiative, which is known as COSA for short. Launched in 2005, the program is run by Vermont’s Department of Corrections and has served more than 200 released prisoners assessed as a high risk of reoffending. It matches up ex-offenders with a circle of volunteers who support them while also monitoring whether they’re staying on track.

The idea is to help ex-prisoners manage the sometimes-bumpy transition from incarceration to life outside prison. A mounting pile of research suggests that to stay on the right path, ex-offenders need social support, not isolation. At COSA, the results so far are impressive, showing 27 percent to 74 percent cuts in reoffense rates among participants compared with ex-prisoners not enrolled in the program, with the size of the drop varying by type of original offense.

In the drive to end mass incarceration nationally, prison reform advocates say cutting the number of people who land behind bars is only half the equation. The other half is making sure that those released from prison don’t land right back where they started. Of the 650,000 or so ex-offenders who leave U.S. prisons each year, two-thirds are re-arrested within three years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Post-prison re-entry is an important element of the sweeping sentencing reform bill that’s gingerly inching forward on Capitol Hill. The bill includes a measure that requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons to give eligible inmates access to programs that are proven to work in cutting recidivism.

A big reason reoffense rates are so high, experts say, is that many ex-criminals who leave prison have no one waiting for them on the outside. In a 2014 study in the Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice & Criminology for example, ex-prisoners reported that social support was what they most consistently lacked after their release—even more than housing or employment—and its absence often led them back into crime.

“The traditional view of what should happen when a prisoner is released has it backward—that you get people to stop committing crimes so that you can reintegrate them,” says University of Vermont criminologist Kathy Fox, who is studying the results of Vermont’s program. “Actually, you reintegrate them to keep them from committing crimes.”

The COSA model started in Canada in the mid-1990s in response to the need to facilitate re-entry for one of society’s most stigmatized groups: released inmates who’d served time for sex crimes. Today, a handful of U.S. states and communities run COSA programs for former sex offenders. But only Vermont has relied on COSA so extensively as a key tool of post-incarceration management of all high-risk ex-offenders—it’s the only state making the program available to former prisoners who have committed any type of serious crime, not just a sex crime.

Fox has compiled data on the program going back to 2006, comparing 139 COSA participants with a matched control group. Her results, which she presented to state legislators in February, show sharp drops in reoffense rates for participants. Of participants originally convicted for violent felonies, only 4 percent were reconvicted for new violent felonies after release—compared with 21 percent in the control group. For participants who had originally committed sex offenses, 3 percent committed a new felony sex offense, compared with 22 percent of the control group participants.

Reductions that large are “pretty unheard of” in correctional circles, says Fox. “Especially if you can reduce felonies … the cost savings and the intangible cost savings are dramatic.”

Vermont’s results mirror those in other states. A 2012 study of Minnesota’s COSA program, which serves only sex offenders, found that program participants were 62 percent less likely to be re-arrested than members of a control group who didn’t participate in the program. Similar results have also been found in Canada and Britain. Since 2012, the federal government has been ramping up funding for evaluations of COSA programs like Minnesota’s that work with released sex offenders.

A key program ingredient, Fox’s study found, is that those offering the services are volunteers. “Over time, what [ex-inmates] said repeatedly to me was, ‘Once I realized that they have nothing to gain from this except to see me do well, then I became invested in making them proud,’” says Fox. “So they learn what it means to have social obligations—sort of normal, caring relationships.”

Also key is that the program encourages volunteers get to know ex-inmates as human beings, not just clients. The point of exercises like the question cards that Gene shared with volunteers last month was to help everyone better get to know each other to help cement the bond between the former prisoner and the volunteers, explains Alfred Mills, the re-entry specialist in the Montpelier COSA program.

Fox is interviewing probation officers as part of her study and says most of them feel the same. That gets to the “accountability” part of why the program seems to work—probation officers can’t be everywhere all the time. Volunteers offer another set of eyes on ex-offenders.

That’s why the first step for any COSA group helping an inmate just released from prison is a case management session. That meeting brings together the ex-prisoner’s family members; the volunteers; a COSA staff member assigned to the group; and the ex-inmate’s probation officer. The officer gives everyone an overview of the offender’s terms of release and the crime that was committed. The offender goes over post-release goals, and talks about his or her feelings about the crime. Members of the group agree that there will be no secrets—if the offender tells a volunteer something that could violate the former prisoner’s probation, the volunteer must share it with the probation officer and with the rest of the group.

It’s the COSA model’s tagline—“no more victims”—that convinces volunteers that what they’re doing isn’t social work, but public safety. “If we can get them out of the system and make them a productive member of society, then we’ve gone a long way to make the place safer,” says 63-year-old volunteer David Santamore, a semi-retired Marine Corps veteran who works part-time at a transition house for young men coming out of prison.

A key advocate for Vermont’s crime victims agrees. “One of the things we have in common with folks who advocate for offenders is our desire to have supports in place that will help reduce recidivism,” says Cara Cookson, of the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services. She says she likes what she’s seen of the COSA program. 

In Vermont, many COSA participants have success stories to tell: a stable relationship and place to live, a job, friendships. Achievements like those aren’t earth-shattering, says Yvonne Byrd, who helped start the state’s COSA program 11 years ago. “We like the stories where there’s this incredible transformation. But having a job, paying your bills, not hurting other people—that’s a success.” 

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