It was clear to even a casual observer that there was a significant homeless population in downtown Austin. But what was not clear was how the community should respond. In analyzing the problem, community prosecutor Eric McDonald discovered, almost by accident, that the homeless population included a number of recently-released inmates.
“I’d been told by the Salvation Army, which runs the largest shelter in the area, that occasionally they would see law enforcement vans from neighboring counties drop off people at their place,” McDonald said. Then McDonald confirmed that the state jail was dropping up to 60 people a month on the street in front of the shelter. “That’s when it clicked, that there literally is a revolving door,” McDonald said.
Many of the offenders had been arrested on drug charges. “Knowing that this area around the Salvation Army is a hot spot for crack, and knowing that so many of the offenders are addicted to crack, I couldn’t believe it was happening,” McDonald said. “I knew if we really wanted to have an impact on downtown on the vagrancy and crack cocaine, we’d have to do something about this because it’s creating an endless supply of these individuals.”
Fortunately, the administrators of the state jail were willing partners. As it turned out, the state jail simply didn’t have the resources to ensure that every inmate had a discharge plan, or that those with plans actually followed them. The prison sponsored a day when social service providers would come to the prison and meet with offenders, but offenders were not required to attend—and those with discipline problems were actually prohibited from participating. And even those with plans to enter, say, a half-way house, were still being dropped off in front of the Salvation Army and told to make their own way to the half-way house. The state jail had selected that location because of its proximity to many of the city’s social service providers—but the reality was that few of the former inmates were finding their way to services. “Once they’re on the street, they can score crack in five minutes so the chances of making it to the half-way house on their own were pretty slim,” McDonald said.
McDonald then contacted as many potential partners as possible, including the warden, halfway houses, drug rehabilitation facilities, AIDS service providers, homeless shelters and organizations that work with ex-offenders. “I tried basically to educate myself about all the potential resources for these guys,” McDonald said.
McDonald found that there seemed to be enough resources; the only problem was making sure that just-released inmates were linked with the proper ones. With the permission of the administrators at the state jail, McDonald decided to meet with each inmate before his release. At each session he talks about available services, reviews what benefits the inmate might be entitled to, and then explains the consequences of re-offending. “Many have multiple convictions, and I tell them that they could face the three strikes law. I also mention to them that they are prohibited from possessing any type of firearm for the rest of their lives and if caught doing so would be held accountable in federal court through the [Department of Justice-funded] Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative. But I also emphasize that I’m there to help.”
After each meeting, McDonald arranges for post-release housing and the Austin Police Department provides donated clothes. Perhaps most important, upon their release the police drive each person to a temporary home. “Many say, ‘I keep telling the judge not to drop me back downtown after I serve my time, but I keep getting dropped back down there,’” McDonald said.
To monitor the effectiveness of the program, McDonald periodically runs the names of participants through the criminal database to see if any have been re-arrested. Results so far have been promising. From September 2003, when the program began, to January 2004, McDonald met with 59 soon-to-be-former inmates (who collectively had literally hundreds of criminal convictions) and 53 agreed to go to a halfway house outside of the downtown area.
Of the six who refused to participate, five have been re-arrested—some within days of their release and at least one has been re-arrested four times. Of the 53 in the program, however, only 10 have been re-arrested or received a field release citation for a new offense. “At this point it appears that the program is having an impact on reducing the recidivism in downtown and for the city as a whole,” McDonald said, noting that the 53 participants “are a very high-risk population—most are chronically homeless and some have literally 9 or 10 pages of criminal history.”