& & by Pia K. Hansen & & & &
It used to be that the Department of Corrections was mainly concerned about offenders as long as they were in jail. Once released, offenders were on their own. But since the Offender Accountability Act (OAA) passed in 1999, all that has changed.
"This is a monumental change in DOC's programs and a fundamental philosophical change in how the DOC does business," says Cheryl Steel, who coordinates the Community Offender Accountability Teams (COAT) for the DOC. "Every offender is evaluated before release, and 150 days pre-release we begin to get a team together to support the offender once he gets out."
To be concerned about the newly released offender after he or she gets out is something totally new for the DOC, but combined with treatment while incarcerated, the program offers the promise of lower recidivism rates.
The COAT teams are, in essence, volunteer guardians already living in the community where the offender is going to live. The guardians work together with staff from the prison, the community corrections officer, law enforcement and victims' advocates all in an effort to prevent the offender from committing another offense.
"Because we always must keep public safety in mind, we focus on the high risk offenders, and we try to develop resources in the community that may enhance the offender's ability to reintegrate," says Steel.
And because of effective community notification in the form of mailers and fliers, Steel says many sex offenders are scared to death when they move back into a neighborhood. "I had one who came to me three weeks after the notification and asked when we were going to do it. When I told him people were already notified, he was very surprised that nobody in the neighborhood had said anything to him. But that's good. Since no one has directly confronted him, that means he is likely to stay there. But it doesn't mean people are not watching him."
COAT team members not only become familiar with the offender, but also keep an eye on his behavior.
"If there are restrictions on the offender's release -- say, he can't talk to minors -- and the guardian sees him talking to these girls at the bus stop every morning, they call the community corrections officer," says Steel. "And as something new, the officer can also change the offender's restrictions right there on the spot. For instance, if the offender starts drinking and that becomes a problem, that can be added right away." The officer can also add sanctions if a guardian reports that the offender has begun using drugs.
But some are wondering if this is a case of the DOC trying to put the responsibility for watching the offender on the shoulders of regular folks in the neighborhood instead of on those who are funded by taxes to maintain public safety.
"This enhances public safety. We really begin to put families at risk when we just chase the offenders under the bridge," says Steel. "You have to engage people in the community. If you live in an inner city neighborhood, there is a responsibility that comes with that, and that is to be a participant."
A large number of sex and other type of offenders is being released into the West Central neighborhood, which is in the third legislative district -- the poorest district in the entire state. Isn't this putting already disadvantaged people at a higher risk than necessary?
"There is no way the DOC is telling people where to live," says Steel, "but what we are finding is that the social capacity in these areas is really high. You are much less likely to find such a high level in a gated community."
Often offenders are attracted to the inner city neighborhoods not only because of the social capacity, but also because they are on bus lines, close to downtown where the jobs are and they have low rent. Treatment facilities and health services are also nearby.
But some neighborhoods must surely respond in a negative manner to this new responsibility as stewards of public safety.
"In the organized neighborhoods within the city limits, there is never any panic," says Steel. "I understand the panic felt by residents in Medical Lake and Airway Heights [when confronted with possible sex offender halfway houses being built there]. They had no proper process through which to ask questions, but we provide that."