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Thursday, June 14, 2012 04:49 pm

Ex-offenders offered hope

Summit of Hope provides knowledge and services



Parolees and ex-offenders often struggle to successfully reintegrate themselves into their community, an issue the Summit of Hope conference intends to change.

At the Summit of Hope conference, held last week at Lanphier High School, local groups partnered with the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Illinois Department of Public Health to provide parolees and individuals on probation an opportunity to receive services and encouragement on the way to becoming responsible members of their community. Participating Springfield groups included the Springfield Urban League Inc., Tower of Refuge, Fifth Street Renaissance and Springfield Community Federation.

Doris Turner, Springfield Ward 3 alderman and chief of the center for minority health services for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said she is pleased with how the events have been received across the state.

“This really began as an idea about what state agencies, working in partnership with communities, can do to reduce the recidivism rates across Illinois,” Turner said. “These events have been very successful.”

Turner said 412 ex-offenders attended the event.

The recidivism rate is the percentage of parolees or individuals on probation who end up back in prison within one year, either for committing new crimes or for violating the terms of their release. A 2010 report from the Illinois Department of Corrections said Illinois’ recidivism rate was 51.1 percent.

The statewide event, held for the second time in Springfield, included 50 to 55 vendors informing and teaching parolees and others about topics such as education, employment, banking, health services, dentistry and religion. Other agencies and organizations involved included Lincoln Land Community College, representatives of the Illinois Secretary of State and Illinois State Treasurer, and Springfield-based barber school Flawless Kutz.

Turner said about 100 organizations took part in the event.

Vendors provided services including free state-issued identification cards, HIV testing, dental examinations and tips on how to interview for a job.

Penny Harris, executive director of Fifth Street Renaissance, said her organization addresses recidivism in Illinois through their reintegration project.

“This program serves individuals who are coming out of correctional facilities who are HIV positive,” Harris said. “We know this program works because it has a recidivism rate that is less than 10 percent.”

The Reintegration Project of Fifth Street Renaissance assists ex-offenders outside of Cook County who have tested positive for HIV by providing access to housing options, medical treatment, counseling and employment opportunities.

Harris said in addition to providing services and goods to parolees and others, it is also important for the ex-offenders to understand that someone cares.

“This building is filled today with individuals and agencies who care about their (ex-offenders’) future,” Harris said. “They are used to having people lock their car doors as they walk past, so when they walk in and have a smiling face to greet them and ask them questions about how we can help them, that truly means something to them. Sometimes change comes in very small steps.”

Fifth Street Renaissance, a Springfield-based nonprofit agency that offers services to individuals and families in crisis, offered up to five free items like clothing or household goods to individuals who attended the event and also provided the free HIV testing booths.

Dominic Watson, project coordinator for the Springfield Urban League, Inc., said educating ex-offenders of their options will reduce Illinois’ recidivism rate.

“We need to empower these individuals so they can go further in life. They often repeat their crimes because they feel like they don’t have options,” Watson said.

One individual was especially impressed with the event.    

Massie Starks was arrested in 2010 and served two months in 2011 in the Macon County jail for writing a bad check to Party City in Decatur for “birthday materials” for her daughter’s birthday. Following her release in 2011, Starks was placed on probation, but said she didn’t follow her probation guidelines, which resulted in her spending an additional three weeks in jail.

“I had never been on probation before, so I really didn’t take it seriously. I thought it was kind of a joke,” Starks said.

Starks said the Summit of Hope conference has opened her eyes.

“The event today was absolutely wonderful,” Starks said. “It’s really hard for felons to get a second chance, and this program has provided me and others with the confidence that we can make it.”

Contact Neil Schneider at nschneider@illinoistimes.com.


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