Free time can be dangerous for ex-cons who haven't been properly introduced back into society, according to Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole (BOPP) chairman Charles Traughber.
"If I leave you in here with an hour to do nothing, you could get in all kinds of trouble," Traughber said, referring to inmates who have been categorized as high-risk by BOPP.
But a new Shelby County pilot program beginning in late February or early March will give newly released offenders something constructive to do with their time. The ex-cons will attend programs, such as substance abuse counseling or vocational training to guide them back into life on the outside.
Unveiled last month as part of Governor Bill Haslam's state safety plan, the Office of Offender Re-entry, which provides inmates with pre- and post-transitional assistance, will be tested in Shelby County before it's possibly incorporated throughout the state. The program is being tested in Shelby County first because it's included in the Memphis and Shelby County Crime Commission's Operation Safe Community plan.
Two hundred high-risk offenders who are eligible for parole in Shelby County will be chosen for the program while they're still in prison. A "high-risk" inmate is one who has a higher potential to be a recidivist, which means they're more likely to return to prison within three years of their release.
Male inmates tend to be higher risks for recidivism than female inmates, but Traughber said they wanted to include some women in the test sample as well. Forty out of the 200 inmates chosen for the program will be women. Some violent offenders eligible for parole may be accepted to the Office of Offender Re-entry, but sex offenders will be excluded from the program.
"Sex offenders, depending on what type they are, require a lot more treatment and monitoring, and this program is not set up for that," Traughber said.
Once BOPP decides a prisoner is eligible for the program, the staff at the Office of Offender Re-entry will make contact with that person 120 days before they're set to be released. That process of identifying inmates will begin later this month or in early March.
"During that time, if they have special needs like getting into a vocational education program or getting a picture ID, the staff can get started on helping with that," Traughber said. "The staff will start talking to the inmates to get their minds ready to understand that this program will be beneficial to them."
Once they're released, the parolee will be supervised and required to attend programs tailored to their needs for at least 18 months.
"We will have vendors that offer core programs, like substance abuse, mental health, housing, and other programs that will get them away from a criminal way of thinking," Traughber said.
If the recidivism rate is reduced up to 30 percent for the people who come through the Office of Offender Re-Entry, Traughber said the program would be considered a success and will possibly be spread throughout the state. The pilot program will run for two years in Shelby County.