Community corrections
Hilltop House works to buck recidivism trend

Hilltop House resident Megan Jejulio, 21, was reflected in a hallway mirror as she left for work last week. Jejulio, who entered the trnasitional program two weeks ago, said she is grateful to have the opportunity to put her life back together after serving time for drug charges. “I’m ready to grow up and live a real life.”/Photo by David Halterman

by Jeff Mannix

Commit a crime, do the time. Every country has, over centuries, developed systems of maintaining peace and punishing offenders. The United States has excelled at both, but arguable overachieved at punishment. Between state, federal and local criminal justice departments, the U.S. has more people behind bars than any country in the world: One in every 100 adults – 2.2 million U.S. citizens – is behind bars.

If crime is pandemic in the United States, it is certainly epidemic in Colorado. With 24 prisons operated by the state, in addition to six privately operated institutions, Colorado presently houses 23,000 prisoners, with another 12,000 on parole supervision and 61,000 on probation. In all, that totals 96,000 criminals under supervision. In 2007, Colorado taxpayers coughed up $599 million to operate corrections, utilizing 9.7 percent of the state workforce – that’s one in 10 state employees and a staggering 8 percent of Colorado’s general funds.

Are we safer because of this “tough on crime” policy? Hardly.

Prisoners eventually get out of prison, but one in three is recommitted within the first three years of release, and after five years, more than 50 percent are back behind bars.

Prisoners are provided shelter, food, clothing, health care, haircuts, entertainment and exercise. The average sentence is four-plus years, and then they are given a bus ticket and a c-note, the name and address of their parole officer, and the chain-link gate closes them out of perhaps the only orderly life they have ever known. In Colorado, as well as in most states, inmate admissions outpace releases, and the prison population is growing at astounding proportions. According to the Colorado Department of Corrections, prison enrollment has increased more than fivefold since 1985. At least a third of these are repeat offenses.

The only bright spot in this bleak picture is the progressive movement in Colorado to develop alternatives to incarceration that provide counseling and structure for offender reintegration into the community. The backbone of this seismic shift away from mandatory prison sentencing is known as “community corrections.” There are 35 facilities in Colorado serving more than 4,000 felons. Since 1979, Durango has been taking the responsibility for reintroducing community expectations to felons at the Hilltop House, located since 1985 above the city on Avenida del Sol.

“We have 54 residents here at Hilltop,” reported John Schmier, administrative director, “and direct another dozen or so in nonresidential treatment programs. We get transition offenders, those released early from prisons to serve their remaining sentences in reintegration programs such as ours, and we get diversion offenders who have direct sentences in lieu of prison.” Schmier said all have strict rules and expectations they must meet as they work their way back into society, “hopefully prepared to be productive, law-abiding members.”

New arrivals at Hilltop are handed a rule book containing 32 general facility rules and 22 direct-order rules (municipal laws), demanding rigorous attention and flawless execution. “They’re overwhelmed by the rules at first,” said veteran case manager Jeff Cordova, who manages 20 in-house and nonresidential clients, “but when they get to this point in their lives, they’re willing to do just about anything not to go back to prison. But they do have to want to make changes in their lives, and Hilltop House gets them into a pattern of accomplishing things day after day until they ‘get it.’”

Brie Knight holds a psychology degree from Fort Lewis College and has been a case manager at Hilltop House for five years. Prior to Hilltop – where she manages 25 clients – she worked in a prison for the criminally insane in Napa, Calif. In that time, she has learned a tough-love attitude toward her charges.

“They’re criminals, but they’re also people,” she said. “I wouldn’t be working here if I didn’t believe that people can change. Everyone makes mistakes, and I see people here who want to change the way they have made choices, learn from their mistakes, and succeed here and in life.”

The first two months at Hilltop are the riskiest, Knight said. It takes that long to get into the routine and realize that, unlike prison, success at Hilltop depends on setting goals and working toward achieving them. “They’d be in jail, prison or dead if they weren’t here,” she said.

After arrival, offenders have 10 days to secure a job. “I’ve only seen one person fail to find a job here,” said Director Schmier. “We have employers lined up waiting for workers from Hilltop.”

Andy Pierce, owner of Hermosa Ironworks in Bodo Park, concurred. “Some of my best employees come from Hilltop House,” he said. “They show up for work every day, show up sober, bring their lunch, and give an honest day’s work because they need their jobs; you can’t ask for more. Some of these guys have worked for me for more than 10 years; I depend on them as they depend on me.”

Offenders must telephone Hilltop when they get to work or leave the premises for any reason, and must walk or bicycle everywhere. They can’t have cell phones, can’t fraternize with other felons, and are required to take drug and alcohol screenings at least once a month. They’re on a short leash until they earn the trust to roam further into normal life.

Scott Navarra is 26 years old and was sentenced to Hilltop as an alternative to prison for illicit drug violations. He’s now four months into an 18-month sentence. “The first couple of weeks were very stressful here,” Navarra confessed. “The unknown is scary, and with all these rules, I just didn’t know if I was cut out for this. But being up here I’ve had a chance to reflect, and I finally figured out that this place was giving me a fighting chance to change the senseless way I was leading my life.”

Navarra added that his time at Hilltop House has been a journey back to mainstream society. “With everything you do, you get out of it what you put in,” he said. “We’re not bad people here; we’ve made mistakes, and we’re getting help to understand that we can change, make better choices and live happier, more productive lives.”

Megan Jejulio, 21, has been at Hilltop for two weeks, transitioning from a woman’s penitentiary where she served five months for repeated drug busts. Her father was a drug dealer, and she dropped out of school in the eighth grade and began using methamphetamine intravenously. “Prison changed my life, and I’m putting it back together the right way here at Hilltop,” she said with great enthusiasm. “I’m ready to grow up and live a real life.”

Patty Sanner, age 50, served 14 months at High Plains Correctional Facility, a 350-bed medium security women’s prison in Brush, Colo. She is currently serving six months at Hilltop, awaiting nonresidential privileges and Intensive Supervision Parole to complete her six-year sentence. “I am blessed that Hilltop gave me the privilege to come here,” Sanner said joyfully. “Prison saved my life, but Hilltop gave my life back to me. The first step is to take responsibility for what you did, after that, it all falls into place if you’re lucky enough to come to Hilltop and you want a real life again; you have to want it.” •

Recidivism rates – new violations and re-sentencing – hover around 50 percent for offenders released from prison directly into the community supervised by parole. However, offenders successfully completing Hilltop’s program recidivate at roughly 30 percent. Hilltop House – and other community corrections programs – are keeping thousands of offenders out of the system each year, not only saving millions of dollars and creating new taxpayers, but possibly making better neighbors in the process.



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