Rural Re-entry Program Saves Money, Lives, Director Says

Herald Chronicle

A resounding success, the Middle Tennessee Rural Re-entry Program boasts a drastic reduction in the recidivism rate for those participating in the program, a 64 percent job placement rate, and an annual savings of more than $3 million for the county, according to Executive Director Christine Hopkins.

In just the past year alone, 86 offenders placed in jobs through the program earned $1.52 million in wages, Hopkins said recently. If those 86 individuals had remained incarcerated, it would have cost the county about $1.852 million per year to house them, she added.

Hopkins said the savings totals about $3.3 million annually.

In seven years since its inception, in Franklin County, the program has captured the attention of other communities throughout the state by successfully overcoming a number of challenges in serving inmates, training them in marketable skills, preparing them for the job market and placing them in good paying jobs, Hopkins said.

Through the program, recidivism rates in Franklin County dropped from 81 percent to 25 to 35 percent, and the program has been expanded to serve Coffee and Warren counties, according to recorded statistics.

In May, Hopkins was invited to give a presentation about the programs success at the “Second Chances And Safe Communities” conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

She was accompanied by Assistant Director Dale Hatcher, Director of Technology Dawna Baker, Sheriff Tim Fuller, and case managers Michelle Perkins and Amy Smith.

At the conference, Hopkins discussed the challenges they faced in the beginning including funding and community support.

“Funding was the fi rst major challenge, but we obtained a grant from the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice that required a 25 percent from the county,” she said. “We presented county commissioners with research on the positive results of reentry and a marketing plan and were able to acquire the matching funds.”

Hopkins said that she was indeed grateful to County Mayor Richard Stewart and Fuller, who played a major role in starting a program that is now saving the county large sums of money and, at the same time, saving lives.

For the past four years the program has been fully grant funded by the US Bureau of Justice Assistance, Department of Justice.

Using her more than three decades of experience in rehabilitation for the state of Tennessee, Hopkins tackled the next challenge — designing a program that would meet the needs the participants.

“Initially priority was given to programs that would achieve the most immediate results,” she said. “A lot of our challenges were solved by modifying forms from other agencies.”

“We found used furniture from other offices, moved in and started serving participants.”

Hopkins said that Greg Jackson, an initial employee of the program, was a great asset in computer automating all necessary forms and polices.”

Cultivating a positive community mindset among the citizens of Franklin County was another challenge the program faced from the onset.

“The re-entry program need to gain the respect of businesses and citizens of Franklin County, it was important from the beginning for the media to portray the positive aspects of the program,” Hopkins said. “Newspaper articles, radio press releases, and speaking engagements were scheduled to inform citizens of the importance of reducing recidivism and in returning productive citizens for a safer community.”

Another step Hopkins took in further expanding a positive mindset of the program was to build strong relationships with local community partners.

“We established relationships with the local adult basic education for the (General Education Development program), Campora was used to teach parenting skills to participants, local churches were invited to lead faith based classes as well as aid in financial funds for participants to obtain their ID’s which are required for employment,” she said. “A local counseling service was contracted to provide mental health and substance abuse counseling.

“Perhaps the most important partnerships formed, were those with community correction, state and county probation offices that provided the teeth to ensure client compliance in the form of post release treatment and employment.”

One big challenge the program faced was the stigma associated with hiring inmates who are felons.

“To address this very prevalent stigma, knowledgeable placement coordinators were hired to sell the skills of the participants and were successful in marketing the program to all industries within the local area,” Hopkins said. “Vital to the success of the program was the ability of placement coordinators to find a niche in identifying appropriate employment matches and potential employment problems, such as transportation, housing and hours available to work.”

Sustainability has also been a challenge for the program that has been overcome by the diligence of Hopkins and her staff who have been able to sustain the program through grants.

“This funding has allowed us to extend re-entry services in two additional counties, and four other counties are requesting our services,” Hopkins said. “This makes sustainability even more critical.

“Our strategy now includes pending approval of our 501(c) (3) non-profit status. This will allow us to pursue alternate funding sources.”

Hopkins said that her staff has multiplied from two to 15.

Because of growth, and to better represent the organization, the name was changed from Franklin County Community Re-entry to Middle Tennessee Rural Re-entry.

“For the past six and half years, a lot of our challenges have been overcome,” Hopkins said. “The recidivism rate for the program ranges from 25 to 35 percent. The combined placement rate is 64 percent, and return on investment, based on total wages earned by participants versus total cost, is over three to one.

“This does not include the cost of incarcerated inmates, if this cost was included the return on investment would be about ten to one.”

Hopkins said that each new day brings its own set of unique challenges, but she believes that the program is well equipped to face those odds.

“With an excellent staff and Board of Directors who have passion for those we serve, I know we will be able to meet any challenge,” she said. “Thousands of men and women throughout this nation need each of us to help them meet their challenges and overcome the drugs and crime that rob them of their daily lives.

“Building more prisons is not the answer, changing lives is the answer.”

The re-entry program has three major goals:

· Reduce recidivism of inmates at the Franklin, Coffee, and Warren County jails

· Train inmates to become productive members of society by addressing their criminogenic needs

· Help improve public safety

To achieve these goals, the following classes and services are provided to eligible adult inmates serving time in Franklin, Coffee and Warren County jails.

· Vocational Evaluation

· GED (General Education Development)

· Job Readiness classes

· Vocational training modules

· Job placement assistance

· Computer information technology skills

· Parenting classes

· Moral Reconation Therarpy

The program is fully funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.