Category Archives: Feature Articles

REENTRY HEAVEN

Two more articles, as published in V.2.N.1., April 2016, Help YourSelf Community Resources Directory:

GOVERNOR PROCLAIMS REENTRY DAY

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Pedestrian bridge spanning the Arkansas River between Little Rock and North Little Rock, Arkansas.

“Right now … if you leave prison, you get $100 and a bus ticket,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson laid out his plan for the state prison system Feb. 18, 2015.

“That is really not going to help reduce repeat offenders from going back in,” he said. “They need an opportunity. The reentry centers will help them find their way back into society.”

On Wednesday, April 13, several dozen civic and social advocacy groups and many members of the general public who are affected by these issues rallied on the front steps of the Capitol in a show of support for proposed reforms, such as the hiring of additional parole and probation officers, the creation of a transitional reentry center program and alternative (non-prison) sentences for nonviolent offenders.

Coordinated by the Central Arkansas ReEntry (CARE) Coalition, the rally featured several distinguished speakers representing various agencies and organizations which actively provide reentry support service.

“Because the impact of incarceration is so great on the individual, their families, and society as a whole, it takes an array of service providers, public policy experts, faith-based groups, community organizations and support services to assist with transition to return to society and avoid the situations that lead to recidivism,” Robert Kim Combs, Chair of CARE’s Policy & Law Committee, explained the complexity of the problem.

“No one entity can do it all and do it effectively,” he said. “This rally brought together a number of the people and organizations that are helping and to tell the story of the 56% of people who successfully return to free society without re-offending. And it is important to acknowledge that many of these groups are working without government support.”
In appreciation of these collaborative efforts, an official Proclamation of the Governor, declaring April 13, 2016, as ARKANSAS COMMUNITY REENTRY DAY, was read and, concluding the presentation, attendees toured the Capitol to meet legislators and learn about the General Assembly.

For more information, visit www.ArkansasReentry.com or call (501) 444-CARE.

So…THIS IS HEAVEN???

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“Fiesta” — statue at The Rivermarket in Little Rock, Arkansas. Photo by Regina Strehl

A man was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and invited to tour both heaven and hell so he could report back to his brethren and give a firsthand account of what the afterlife was like.

In hell he found a beautiful earth-like land, replete with towering mountains, deep-green forests, babbling brooks and sunny blue skies.

Rows and rows of tables, stretching as far as the eye could see and piled high with the most delicious food imaginable, stretched across the gorgeous countryside, yet masses of emaciated people roamed among the tables, moaning and weeping.

Every person had a huge fork strapped to each arm, above and below the elbow, which made it impossible to bend their arms to get any of the food into their mouths.
Try as they might to feed themselves, everyone was starving.

“What a horrible fate to endure,” said the man.

“Yes,” said the Archangel Gabriel. “Perpetual starvation in the midst of abundance. That is why we call it hell.”

Then POOF!!! The man was whisked-away to heaven where the view was nearly identical: rows and rows of delicious food spread upon tables across the bucolic land.

There, too, huge forks were double-strapped to the people’s arms which stopped them from feeding themselves, yet all were healthy and happy. “Because in heaven,” said Gabriel, “we all feed each other.” ~author unknown

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FAILED POLICY

20 YEARS OF FAILED SEX OFFENDER MANAGEMENT POLICY

Megan’s Law, which requires local law enforcement to collect and disclose details relating to the location of registered sex offenders, came to be 20 years ago in response to the terrible rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka, by a neighbor who was on the sex offender registry. The Adam Walsh Act (AWA), which took effect 10 years ago, was named after a six-year-old boy who was abducted from a department store and was later found murdered. In response, the AWA took Megan’s Law a step further, establishing the first national sex offender registry and setting standard criteria for posting offender data on the Internet.

The intent of these laws is that every parent should have the right to know if a dangerous sexual predator moves into their neighborhood. But if we are to end child sexual abuse, we must see through the false hopes of these regulations and ask some serious questions.

Opponents of Megan’s Law and the AWA, like Women Against Registry, Reform Sex Offender Laws, Inc., Human Rights Watch, and Arkansas Time After Time, assert that laws which mandate public registration and residency restrictions go overboard and invite vigilante violence. That the accumulated results of 20+ years of research find no statistically significant reduction in sex-crimes due to the implementation of Sex Offender Registration and Notification (SORN) regulations.

According to the Office of Justice Programs’ Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking (SMART) Office,”…the evidence is fairly clear that residence restrictions are not effective. In fact, the research suggests that residence restrictions may actually increase offender risk by undermining offender stability and the ability of the offender to obtain housing, work, and family support.” Also, that contrary to “broad public and policymaker support for SORN, and a perceived public safety benefit… there is nothing to suggest this policy should be used at this time.”

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Those who exit prison too often find the road to healthy, happy reentry into free society paved with tremendous obstacles and pitfalls. (cartoon used by permission)

Treatment professionals, such as the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA), criticize these laws and decry the scientifically unsupported yet popular belief in high recidivism, and the unintended consequences of them which undermine, rather than improve, public safety by exacerbating homelessness, unemployment and social instability.

In addition, civil rights and reform organizations highlight the adverse collateral effects on the family members of registrants. They question that most registries are indefinite unwarranted punishment because sexual offense laws are applied not just to those who commit the unthinkable, but to a wide variety of offender groups such as juveniles and young adults engaging in consensual acts. Even the current chair of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Patty Wetterling, whose 11 year old son Jacob was abducted in 1989, has penned similar critique.

Factually, according to official government studies published by the U.S. Department of Justice, registered sex offenders have an extremely low recidivism rate, between 3.5 and 5%. Even an Arkansas Parole Board discussion on 29 September 2011, noted that sex crimes had some of the lowest rates of recidivism.

Our current sex offender management policy is simply doing the same thing over and over. Contrary to this “feel good” policy, what we need is policy that can actually protect families.

Now, on the 10 and 20 year anniversaries of the laws created in response to these unimaginably terrible crimes, we need to take a serious look at what we can do to truly make our communities safer places.

These laws were a knee-jerk response to the terrible fear all of us have concerning our children. The desire for retribution has slowly developed into a fear-mongering industry focused on profit. Companies throughout the US aggressively solicit parents to sign-up for their ‘alert and notification services’, hyping the debunked idea that a public registry or residency restrictions will somehow keep children safe.

If we consider the statistics that 95% of those now registered will never re-offend, that means that 95% of all future offenses will be committed by people who are NOT on any registry.

Knowing where registrants live lets us feel 95% safe, but it is an illusion built on fear and suspicion. I am advocating for caution and education.

Open up easy lines of communication with your kids. Teach them to be aware of situations that may prove dangerous. Tell them what to do when things don’t seem right. Insist that they ‘buddy up’ and go two-by-two. Make it clear to them that their bodies are private, and that they should always tell you if anyone – a mommy or daddy or teacher or doctor or family friend – wants to touch them in a ‘secret’ way. And remember, the vast majority of sexual offenses against children are committed by other children who, realistically, deserve guidance and therapeutic intervention but in our current system too often get prison time.

In Arkansas, the Sex Offender Community Notification Assessment (SOCNA) Program is responsible for determining the ‘risk level’ assigned to individuals on the registry. The assessment tools used are common through-out the nation, often employing voice stress analysis and polygraph tests.

Level 1 is low risk, Level 2 is medium, Level 3 is high risk and people assessed as a Level 4 are classified as sexually dangerous persons. Currently the state default is Level 3 or 4.

Currently a Level 3 sex offender, the most common Level in the state, is classified as presenting a ‘high risk’ of re-offending. Yet this same group of people has only a 5% recidivism rate.

Thus it would be more accurate and reasonable to classify Level 3 as ‘low risk’, with Levels 2 and 1 be-coming lower risk and lowest risk.

In addition to saving millions of dollars on the administration of systems which deliver no public good, if these classifications were more consistent with reality then fewer Arkansans would be falsely led to believe that predators are lurking behind every bush.

This would also have a beneficial effect on those who are reentering free society after confinement, making employers more amenable to hiring and, if residency restrictions were correspondingly adjusted, reducing homelessness. In order to legitimately serve our common well-being, laws must provide a reasonable method for those who have served their sentences to be able to restore their lives.

We need to shift the reentry burdens off of the individual registrant and onto the state. For example, after 5 years of good behavior by a person classified as Level 1 or 2, they should be automatically relieved of the obligation to register. For Level 3, it should be 10 years. And for Level 4s, it could be 15.

If on the other hand an offender has been convicted of multiple sex crimes and it has been shown by a preponderance of evidence that he or she continues to pose a serious threat to society, that person should be required to remain on the registry for the full 15 years. If the state cannot find cause for continued placement on the registry they should be removed.

20 years of these sex offender management policies have had no positive effect on child safety. Surely, we can use evidence based research to develop better methods.

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Arkansas Prisons

ARKANSAS’ PRISONS ARE OVERCROWDED!

What can we do about it?

Crime rates are falling all across America. Even in Arkansas violent crime has dropped by 4% and property crime was down 17% between 2004 and 2014. However, since 2014 Arkansas prison population has increased by 22%, to more than 18,000 inmates and Arkansans on probation or parole, the highest rate of rise in the nation. Around the country states are closing prisons due to the drop in crime while in Arkansas we continues to pack our prisons and county jails at a cost of 512 Million dollars last year, expected to rise to more than $1.2billion within 10-years.

We are a small state with a population of around 3-million and a tight budget that we have continued to balance at a staggering cost. Imagine if we could use our state budget to treat mental illness and substance abuse rather than incarcerate ill and addicted inmates.

Rather than remaining the brunt of the stigma and shame that comes from perusing policies that have obviously failed us, we could be an example of another state that has turned our problem around.

In 2011, lawmakers recognized a problem with simply building more jails and took action, passing Act-570. The law was designed to reduce prison populations by reducing sentences, expanding probation and parole and encouraging reentry programs. So, what happened?

In 2013, a parolee was arrested for murder just days after his release. The Board of Corrections implemented new, stricter guidelines to keep inmates incarcerated longer and Act 570 collapsed.

By reinvigorating Act-570 and making it retroactive we could alleviate prison overcrowding with the stroke of a pen. By expanding alternative sentencing and instituting pre-judicial restorative justice programs we could help heal communities and begin treating many non-violent crimes as the community mental health issues that they are and not as criminal justice problems.

By interdicting petty criminals, addicts and the mentally ill we can begin to offer help, not punishment. We can see our family and neighbors restored through compassion and treatment rather than burdening them with a criminal record that will haunt them for life.

We can end the new “Jim Crow” of felony conviction status. We can smash the prison industrial complex. We can make mass incarceration a thing of the past, a bad memory, a shameful part of our history that we proudly overcome. Arkansas needs prisons. We need safe, well-funded and well-administered prisons. However we don’t need to fill these exceptional prisons with non-violent substance abusers and our mentally ill friends and family. Our prisons should be reserved for our friends and family who pose a danger to all of us, not for those we are mad at.

I see Arkansas as a unique state that traditionally was a beacon of freedom on the frontier. Wedged between the Deep South and Indian Territory, Arkansas was a state where all people were welcome to start anew, unfettered by past mistakes, and build a healthy life. Somewhere around the beginning of the last century things began to change and Arkansas fell into a sad maturity. We began to accept prejudice and fear as a natural state of things. That is not our true heritage.

Let us return to being on the frontier of change, acceptance and envision a new life for all Arkansans.

Robert Kim Combs
Publisher & General Manager
Help YourSelf Community Resources Directory

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The Good Grid

In the interest of sharing both the Resource Directory and the Feature Articles now wending their way throughout Pulaski County (Arkansas) via the distribution of Help YourSelf v.2.n.1. we are pleased to post:

  • The current PDF ‘service provider’ edition of the Resource Directory which includes all of the Web Directory URLs that do not appear in the print publication and has NO advertising or editorial content. To download, just click here.
  • The first of the full-length feature articles published in v.2.n.1., and the promise to post more entertaining and informative content from this edition in coming weeks:

goog_grid_logoTHE GOOD GRID

“My advisor told me that I should do a social impact project,” Nisha Garimalla told the story of how The Good Grid began.

In 2011, Nisha was focused on getting into grad school at Stanford University. To bolster her com-puter science qualifications, she took on a project in India to help children in under-served villages gain access to educational resources. What she found was a challenge more daunting than simply introducing technology to the classrooms.

Nisha Garimalla, founder of The Good Grid

Nisha Garimalla, founder of The Good Grid

“One child said she has to walk 3 miles to school and she doesn’t have shoes so her feet bleed. Another said her dad beats her mom so she can’t concentrate at school.”

Determined to vanquish these stumbling-blocks, Nisha plied her research skill to finding solutions and discovered that there were a plethora of government agencies and nonprofit good-works organizations whose mission it was to help these same kids.

“There was actually an NGO [Non-governmental Organization] in that same state of India that provided psychological counseling to these children in villages,” she said. “And there was a government program to provide bicycles to children in these under-served villages.”

Thus Nisha started with the mission of creating a networking portal to connect those in need with those that provide services.

Coming home to Arkansas, Nisha went to work for Protech Solutions, inspired with the idea of using technology to unify the organizations and activists who want to help the under-served, namely former offenders.

“There are so many,” she said, about both the number of men and women who are released daily from incarceration, and the long list of organizations with missions to assist in and support the reentry process.

Good Grid 1 (1)“There’s the CARE Coalition and Freedom for Life, all these different coalitions and service providers, government agencies. Everyone wants to help,” she said.

Thus in mid-2013, Nisha and Protech started developing The Good Grid as a free and readily accessible networking website, bringing together those who are re-entering the com-munity with services, support and guidance.

“Job-seekers can make profiles and upload resumes, non-profits and government agencies can list their services” she explained.

“Today in Arkansas many people find themselves in helpless situations and having to deal with a multitude of poverty related issues,” Nisha elaborated. “Although there are many good people and great organizations ready to help, people are still slipping through the cracks.”

The Good Grid streamlines access to a multitude of training and support programs via two main components. One part, called MyPortfolio, is a tool for people who are seeking assistance and their case-workers to prepare resumes and browse training modules for structured learning programs which address individual needs to improve reading, math, technology and work skills, search the Good Grid database of more than 100,000 services, and apply for jobs gleaned from various sources including local news-papers and larger job databases.

One exceptional benefit of the Good Grid is that job searches can be filtered to find those specifically posted for people who have been recently released from prison.

The other part, called Social Hub, is for networking among volun-teers and service pro-viders to raise awareness about assis-tance, support, and volunteer opportunities, outreach and fundraising events throughout the local community.

“The Good Grid is a free service,” Nisha concluded. “Please contact us for help getting started.”

For more information, contact Nisha at team@goodgrid.com or visit www.goodgrid.com
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