(This is the tenth of 10 posts. Each is a chapter from the Building a Safe Community project I did for the county.)
A week at the RIC: The stories every decision maker should hear
“We have enough murders walking around on the streets without having boyfriends and girlfriends killing each other.”
Paul knows whereof he speaks. Almost killing his girlfriend is what got him into trouble in the first place. He’s one of the high-risk, repeat criminals the rest of us call “those people.”
The Resource Intervention Center teems with “those people.” They’re the men and women we’re talking about when we say we have to get tough on crime, when we keep score with the daily jail population, when we demand that law enforcement, prosecutors and courts get “those people” away from “us.”
Paul is a best-and-brightest star at Winnebago County’s Resource Intervention Center. Had he been among those who are flunking out of the center’s programs, he’d not be sitting there talking to an interviewer in late August 2011.
He’s frank about how he ended up in the system, acknowledges he’s got a hard road ahead to stay out of it, and says he’s determined he’s not going back in. But, Paul did it. He beat and strangled his girlfriend almost to death. It wasn’t the first time; he’s used his fists to control friends and family for as long as he can remember. This time the cops hauled him in for good.
And, he knows he’s one of the lucky ones because someone thought he might be able to get it together enough to change – and he ended up on probation at the RIC. He gets indignant when asked how he can justify being in an alternative program rather than in jail. Aren’t these just “soft on crime” approaches?
“Idiots,” he said. “Anyone who thinks RIC is soft on crime, that’s what they are. Idiots. They ought to take their blinders off and come down here and see what’s being done. It’s not soft on crime. We have enough murderers walking around on the streets without having boyfriends and girlfriends killing each other.”
Over the past three years, the Resource Intervention Center has reduced by more than 62 percent the number of moderate- and high-risk offenders who return to jail. Paul plans on being part of that statistic.
In September 2011, Winnebago County released the results of a three-year study by University of Illinois researchers on the evidenced-based programs at the Resource Intervention Center. The results were more than remarkable; they beat the national trend numbers for similar programs in state prisons by 17 percentage points. And, they were more effective – by two points – than Winnebago County’s in-jail alternative programs, which also were part of the study.
The more than 800 offenders annually who work their ways through the center in downtown Rockford are part of a national transition from power-and-control warehousing of criminal offenders in local jails and state prisons to an evidence-based, “whole person” model.
It’s that model combined with consistent, close supervision and monitoring by probation officers that is driving lower recidivism rates – and lower criminal justice costs – nationwide. What makes Winnebago County’s approach a model is the standalone Resource Intervention Center.
That’s where Paul found himself this summer (2011). He likes telling his story.
Not everyone does, of course; nor is everyone successful. Some take a stab at it and never come back. Some “run the game,” pretending to change and get with the program just so they can fulfill the court sentencing and get back to doing whatever it was they were doing before they got caught.
“They ought to just kick those guys out of here,” say Dwight and Lorenzo, tripping over each other’s comments to explain they’d like the RIC staff to be more aggressive in weeding out those who don’t want to be in the program.
“You can tell who has potential,” says one, “by how they show respect. By how they wear their hats and use their phones. I wouldn’t wait so long. There are plenty of people who do want to be down here.
In the next breath, he adds, “but I guess they have to be slower. They really do try to help and give us lots and lots of chances. I mean, everyone in the program is not in jail. That’s good.”
That, says the RIC staff, is exactly what they do. They give their clients chances – the kinds of chances most offenders never had. “We become the family a lot of them never had,” said one probation officer. “We have two jobs as probation officers, law enforcement and counselor.”
“We’re working with a lost population,” says one licensed clinical social worker at RIC. “These are people who need someone to support them, to listen to them.
There’s a lot to respect about what’s happening inside the concrete block building at 214 N. Church St. The cavernous building was once was the satellite jail – “Hey, I can show you the place where my cell was when I was in jail here,” said Becky, whose gratitude for the RIC program leads her to add “There are no throwaway people here.”
The tragic, frustrating, anger-making and downright comedic stories pile up over the week, hours and hours of listening to staff and criminals share the tiniest details about their lives before RIC, now and after.
These are stories the rest of us read. They are not the lives we lead. We wouldn’t even know how. And, that’s not just the lives of the criminals. These, too, are the stories of the lives of the social workers, the probation officers, and the center staff. If one isn’t cut out for this job, it will burn you out fast.
Yet “this is a dream job for a counselor,” says one man who has been at his work for decades. Since the criminals called him by name and told tall tales on him, it’s a safe bet he’s making a difference in their lives.
And there was an antiseptic, just-the facts conversation about one of the programs that ended with hands shaken and polite pleasantries until this staffer answered the question about what makes for a really bad day at the RIC.
Her eyes filled with tears and she told of a client with whom she’d worked for months, successfully moving him through immigration seeking asylum, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health challenges and arrests. Calls and trips to the jail to try to find him. Calling in a few chips to get him the prescription for medications he needed in jail.
She kept telling herself – and him — they’d get this done together. And, then just when it was coming together, she couldn’t find him. Not in jail where he was supposed to be. Nowhere.
Until through that grapevine every profession has, someone told her he was being deported, back to the place where others had tried to kill him. And, there was nothing, nothing she could do.
A “there-there, oh my” and a hug seem shallow in the face of such harrowing grief and professional frustration. Only very special people can do jobs like that.
The Resource Intervention Center is filled with men and women who do those jobs everyday and come back for more. It would be easy to paint them as saints and angels. They are not, of course. There are staffers who put in time and wish for the day’s end. It’s like that in every work place. Some do what they do because it’s the right thing to do. Others do it because it’s a paycheck and a pension.
Just as the client interviews were with the best-and-brightest, so were the staff interviews. Those others are around, and when asked, the angels and saints said, “sure, they’re here. There are black holes who are just warming a chair, but they are not who we are.”
Over and over again, staff and clients were pressed to come up with answers to these questions: What would you tell those who think programs like this are just so much “kum-bah-yah,” liberal, do-gooder, soft-on-crime stuff? What do you say to say to families and friends who think we ought just lock up the bad guys and throw away the key?
Answers ranged from “that sounds like my father, and I love him, and I just don’t argue with him because he isn’t going to change” to “if they say crap like that, they’re not my friends anymore.”
The clients are, like Paul, right to the point: Get down here and take a look. After you see what’s really going on, you’ll never think this stuff is soft on crime.
The staff responses are best summed up with this staffer’s perspective: “Crime will still happen. Crime will not go away. But I know that I made a difference to THAT one.”
They know they’re working by the grace of precarious financing and they’ll make do with what they have, though their Santa’s list could stretch from the RIC to the courtrooms half a dozen blocks away. Of greatest need are more probation officers. Those are the “enforcers” and counselors closest to the clients. They keep track and make sure things get done.
Winnebago County probation officers are handling upwards of 200 clients, double the acceptable and more reasonable 90 or so – and many criminal justice experts would argue even that is too high.
Fascinating, though, is the unanimous response to this question posed to both staff and clients: If you absolutely had to choose between more probation officers and expanded programs at the center, which would you choose?
They hemmed and hawed, squirmed in the chair and protested the question was unfair. And, then, everyone, every one of them, said: expanded RIC programs.
Though one added, “don’t tell the POs I said that,” the POs said the same.
This response probably explains what’s behind the thinking: “You can add all the POs you want, but if there’s no place to send them, no programs for offenders, no way to help them, then all the POs in the world won’t matter… But, we still need more POs.”
It is, for the Resource Intervention Center staff, about making a difference, about creating, as one said, hope. They know they are under-staffed, working on the proverbial shoestring and keeping the proverbial finger in the dike.
The good news for the rest of us is that they keep going. When the rest of us are so overwhelmed and confused by the sheer magnitude of the “crime problem” that we choose to walk away and hope it will go away, the men and women who staff the Resource Intervention Center – and the in-jail alternative programs – are there to do the jobs for us. They want to do the jobs. We don’t have to do a thing – except support and finance their work.
1. The report:How it came about and what I did
2. Executive summary: My ten conclusions and observations from the report
3. An overview: Among the dissonance, agreement
4. The past 40 years: Changes on the national level
5. Winnebago County criminal justice system: From command-and-control to wrap-around-services
7. The impact of the one-cent public safety sales tax
8. Alternative to incarceration: Better results. Lower costs
9. The Resource Intervention Center: A 21st century model
10. A week at the RIC