August 11, 2013

Proven track record vs fear of felons

8-11-2013 Idaho:

COEUR d'ALENE - Some neighbors are unnerved by the fact that, for years, they've unknowingly been living next to a facility that treats registered sex offenders.

Others say the treatment center, Port of Hope, has been a good neighbor that provides a service that has be somewhere.

So why not off East Sherman Avenue, they say, where it's been for 20 years, close to homes and an elementary school?

It's an unusual situation, officials charged with deciding Port of Hope's fate have said, because complaints against the facility have been minimal.

Data like police calls for service shows that the center has been treating felony offenders, such as assault and pornography violators, since 1998 without any uproar from the surrounding neighborhood.

But since news of the treatment facility's population makeup became more widely known several weeks ago, some neighbors have said now that they're wiser, they don't like the idea of Port of Hope in their neighborhood.

"It doesn't make me comfortable," said Katrina Marsters, mother of two young children, who has lived two blocks away from Port of Hope for three years, but only recently learned offenders staying there included felony and sex offenses. "I mean, I'm not super excited about it, but at the same time I haven't noticed any unsavory activity, either."

Another neighbor uncomfortable with the facility location is the Coeur d'Alene School District. Fernan Elementary sits a few blocks from Port of Hope.

Over the last month, school district and Port of Hope officials have met to determine if a solution can be reached that allows the treatment facility to continue operating as it has been at 218 N. 23rd St.

But school district officials said this week that despite Port of Hope's best intentions, they are still unsettled at the prospect of having the facility as a neighbor.

"Even with the mitigation, we don't feel confident we can say, 'Oh, we can work this out,'" said Matt Handelman, Coeur d'Alene School District superintendent, on Port of Hope's offer to place more safeguards around the facility's population in an attempt ease the district's concerns. "Could we in good conscience say, OK ... we're good enough? At this point, we can't say that."

Ultimately, the decision on whether the facility is a proper fit for the east side of town belongs to the Coeur d'Alene Planning Commission, which will tackle the unusual situation at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

How it got here

Port of Hope is a treatment facility where perpetrators under the watch of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons can use the facility at the end of their sentences and work toward re-entering society. They live at the facility while receiving treatment and looking for employment.

Port of Hope is in the process of securing a third, five-year contract with the federal government that allows them to treat felony offenders for crimes besides alcohol, drugs and mental illness.

As part of the contract bid, Port of Hope informed the city and detailed the population makeup of its facility. It detailed its population as 85 percent drug and alcohol offenders, while 15 percent consists of theft, mail fraud, pornography, crimes on an Indian reservation and assault-type offenders.

The felony offender portion of the population caught the city off guard. The city had understood the center was only for drug and alcohol treatment.

The difference in population meant the facility wouldn't be allowed to operate in the residential zone without a special use permit, which is why Port of Hope is applying for one now, even though it's been operating the same way since 1998 when they first landed the federal contract.

It's been in the same spot since 1991, but only treated drug and alcohol offenders before 1998.

"I just hope the community realizes that we have the proven track record, and hopefully they stay with us," Tamara Chamberlain, Port of Hope executive director, told The Press this week. "Nobody ever talks about the success stories, they're all the fear stories."

Last month, the planning commission held off making a decision on the special use permit until it studied more data, such as police calls for service to the facility and the number of inmates who failed supervision standards and had to be sent back to prison.

What the numbers say

Since 2008, Coeur d'Alene Police records show that 35 total calls for service have been logged in a one-third mile radius of the Port of Hope.

Of those calls, a substantial number have been for welfare checks. One was a burglary report in 2010, a couple were disorderly conduct calls and one was for theft in 2013.

"The numbers are almost inconsequential," said Deputy City Attorney Warren Wilson about whether the stats showed the facility was a dangerous mix for the neighborhood. "There's really not much in the way of honest-to-goodness crime, and there's no way to tie it back to Port of Hope."

If an inmate violates supervision under Port of Hope's care, they are sent back to prison.

According to numbers provided by Port of Hope, 52 offenders have been through the program in 2013, and no one has been sent back for violating supervision. In 2012, five were sent back.

Currently, Port of Hope has about 33 inmates, including those who are on home confinement.

While Port of Hope estimates their population makeup is split 85 percent drug and alcohol crimes and 15 percent for other felonies, the Idaho sex offender registry at this week listed eight sex offenders registered to Port of Hope's address.

Those offenders would exceed that 15 percent threshold by themselves.

One former inmate, who spoke on condition that his name be withheld, said sex offenders were a big portion of the population while he was there in 2012.

He said when he was there, one fellow inmate was a murderer and other inmates came from areas as far as Texas and New York. He also said he saw "five or six" people get sent back for failing supervision standards while he was there for approximately two months.

"The majority of the people there are freakin' hard core criminals," said the former inmate, who was sentenced for a drug offense. "There were child molesters there - what they call 'chomos.'

"Once the population knows what's going on, they're going to say, 'screw that," he said.

Identities of the inmate population receiving treatment are protected, and Port of Hope representatives referred a request to interview inmates to the Community Corrections office in Seattle. The spokesperson was out of the office and a message left to another representative was not returned.

One former Port of Hope employee, John Conrow, said he was surprised when he learned what inmates were under the facility's care. He said he learned of their charges when he was asked to put away files, and came across that information. Those included sex crimes and "a couple of murderers that went through there," he said.

"I was really surprised what their crimes were because I had no clue at the time," he said, adding that he thought staff on hand were under-prepared to maintain supervision given the number and criminal history of the inmates. "Technically, they're running a federal prison facility. It's semantics. It's a barracks for a federal prison."

Conrow said he was fired around 2009 for talking back to an inmate.

'Not a prison'

Chamberlain said there are five registered sex offenders at Port of Hope now.

The reason for the discrepancy from the ISP website, she said, is because it isn't updated as often as it could be. Part of that could be because inmates stay 90 and 180 days typically and it's up to the offender to re-register once they leave.

The facility does not take "offenders with a criminal history of repeated sexual offenses/acts," documents state, or "offenders who have not completed a treatment program."

As for inmates who come from all over, Chamberlain said that's true. But only because Idaho doesn't have a federal prison. Inmates who have committed crimes in Idaho are sent to do their sentences out of state. If they're eligible for a reentry program at the end of their sentence and they have ties to North Idaho, they can be sent to Coeur d'Alene's facility.

"If they come see our facility, it's not a prison, it's not," Chamberlain said. "They're polite. It's a woman-run facility in both Coeur d'Alene and Nampa. There is not the fear that they think there is. (The inmates) earned a chance to do this by having the discipline. They want this. They want jobs. They want a chance."

Coeur d'Alene and Nampa are the two Port of Hope facilities in Idaho. Nampa's facility, however, isn't allowed to take sex offenders.

It used to, but in a similar situation to what's happening now, neighbors of the southern Idaho center raised concerns once they learned who it was serving.

The Nampa facility has been operating since 1971, but around 2009, Chamberlain said, the city changed the zoning so it could only operate as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

She said they're currently looking for a facility in Nampa that would allow them to treat sex offenders again, and if the Coeur d'Alene Planning Commission denies the special use permit, they could try and find somewhere else in Coeur d'Alene for the same reason.

Port of Hope said it has documentation that they sent to Coeur d'Alene notifying them of its population makeup from previous contract bids. The city doesn't have those copies. A request for copies was denied by Port of Hope, but Chamberlain said they will bring them to Tuesday's meeting if the commission wants to see them.

But if Port of Hope doesn't get the roughly $5 million federal contract, a possibility is it would shut down, taking 35 employees with it. Financially, it can't operate as only a drug and alcohol facility, Chamberlain said.

Another possibility is another company secures the contract and locates a facility in Coeur d'Alene.

"That's the sad thing that people don't understand, they're still here," she said of felony sex offenders returning to Coeur d'Alene with or without Port of Hope, and the federal monitoring conditions the facility has in place.

In the 16 years Chamberlain has worked for Port of Hope, she said she has had only one inmate who was charged for murder, and one who was in for vehicular homicide. While there have been supervision violations, an inmate has never been charged with a new crime once they went to Port of Hope.

"Doesn't that speak for our record in the last 15 years?" she said.

Safeguards offered

In Port of Hope's offer to the school district, it said it would be willing to increase GPS monitoring on all inmates; create a no-entry zone around the school where the GPS would notify staff if an inmate enters; and prohibit inmates from walking to the nearby bus stop during morning and afternoon school commuting hours. They'd also allow school officials to monitor their data for any possible violations or patterns.

But while Port of Hope listed "pornography" as one of the violations listed in the 15 percent makeup of offenses other than drugs and alcohol, Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh told The Press pornography offenses are child pornography related, as any other type wouldn't be prosecutable.

That is too great a risk in the school district's opinion, regardless of the well-intended safeguards being proposed, it said.

"We are advocating for the safety of our kids," Handelman said. "At this point, it's going to be up to the planning commission to decide if our concerns are valid enough, strong enough."

State statute, meanwhile, prohibits sex offenders from living 500 feet within a school.

Part of the statute also exempts facilities from being barred from areas near schools. Yet, a check on the ISP website this week showed several individual houses in the same neighborhood with registered sex offenders close to Fernan Elementary.

Kurt Williams lives close to Port of Hope and the school. He said he wasn't shocked that Port of Hope was treating sex offenders, and that the facility has been a good neighbor. He said he loves his neighborhood, and that it's actually improved over the last 12 years since he moved in.

"I know about the system, I know that a drug user is a violator in other ways," he said. "Whose neighborhood are you going to put them in? They got to be in somebody's. They have to go somewhere ... Nobody's been hurt. Leave 'em alone."

Said Marsters, the mother of two who lives a couple houses away from Williams: "Do I have any option? I guess I would say I'd rather not have sex offenders in my neighborhood. I would say not." ..Source.. by TOM HASSLINGER/Staff writer

No comments: