published Sunday, June 15th, 2014

Community support for returning prisoners urged in Chattanooga

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    Tim Dempsey
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Chattanooga's community organizations, government officials and business leaders need to build a support network for felons trying to re-enter society to break the cycle of recidivism, the keynote speaker at a Saturday seminar said.

"Breaking the cycle of crime, to me, is more the role and responsibility of the community," said Tim Dempsey, executive director of Chattanooga Endeavors and the Knoxville-based Community Building Institute. "The lead-up to re-entry is all a matter of law enforcement, judiciary, corrections. When people come home, community members have a responsibility of making the second chances legitimate. And if the second chances are not legitimate, they really are set up for failure."

More than 50 people gathered at the Chattanooga Choo Choo on Saturday for the NAACP's seventh annual criminal justice seminar. This year's topic was "Balancing the Scales of Justice Through Rehabilitation, Re-entry and Redemption."

Newly appointed Chattanooga police Chief Fred Fletcher, who attended the seminar, said he was glad he had the chance to hear Dempsey speak because he'd been working on implementing similar policies in Austin, Texas, before taking the job here.

"Restorative justice has a lot of promise," Fletcher said. "It's worked really well. It's had tremendous success in improving dropout rates for adolescent and high school students. And we were really trying to apply it in Austin, and I want to apply it here to keep folks out of the cycle of arrest and recidivism."

The seminar followed last weekend's arrest of Richard Bennett, founder and director of A Better Tomorrow, a nonprofit group heavily involved in Mayor Andy Berke's Violence Reduction Initiative that had been contracting with the city to provide social and employment services for violent offenders who agreed to leave their lives of crime.

Chattanooga Endeavors, also a nonprofit, helps to place qualified felons with jobs and training, and with CBI, Dempsey is helping to create a network of public, private and social organizations in Milwaukee to use the community building method to improve the outcomes of existing corrections programs.

He also is working to design an "intentionally nonfunded" nationwide network of church and civic-based volunteer groups to provide a program of care for prisoners and their families.

Community building is "consistent with" the principles of restorative justice -- with the goal of making everybody whole -- as opposed to retributive justice with its goal of getting even through punishment, Dempsey said.

Dempsey emphasized the importance of counseling and mentoring outreach from the moment of entry into the prison system to help with rehabilitation and re-entry -- not waiting until just before freedom. In those last few months, the focus of the prisoner is generally more on physical resources and necessities than on any less tangible aid, he said.

Asked how much the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentences contributes to the justice system's woes, Dempsey said the United States' incarceration rate -- now the highest of any nation -- is indeed driven by sentencing laws that require offenders to spend a minimum amount of time in jail, regardless of extenuating circumstances.

He also recommended modification of sentencing guidelines to free up resources to use for community reinvestment.

"If our response is always prison first, we're just going to continue to stuff people in prison, and we'll continue to have this expansive problem," Dempsey said. "And at the end of the day, we're going to continue to have a bigger and bigger issue with re-entry, because it's just going to get to be a more pressing problem. That's what we've seen for the last 20 years or so."

Contact staff writer Alex Harris at aharris@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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