An inmate in Suffolk County Jail.

An inmate in Suffolk County Jail. Credit: Michael E. Ach

A higher portion of Suffolk County convicts are rearrested than in Nassau or nationally, U.S. and state figures show.

More than 42 percent of all Suffolk County convicts released in 2007 were rearrested by 2011 -- the most recent year that the data were compiled by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision -- higher than New York City's rate of 37.5 percent and the U.S. average of 39.1. Nassau County's rate is 33.5 percent.

Officials and experts familiar with helping former convicts readjust to Long Island society point to a tangled mix of challenges, starting with geography. Towns and villages are spread out, with infrequent buses connecting houses and treatment centers, which can be discouraging to ex-prisoners, authorities said.

"In New York, you can just give a client a MetroCard and that takes care of that," said Vanda Seward, director of re-entry services with the state Division of Parole. "But they have to spend the whole day on the bus and that's hard on anyone, never mind if you don't have great functioning skills after being locked up."

Officials locally and nationally have been trying to combat recidivism for years, arguing that keeping people from returning to jail helps society and reduces the high cost of imprisonment. Others say that in a tough economy, money marked for prisoner rehabilitation should be spent on policing instead.

"What people don't understand is that these individuals came from our community in the beginning, and they're going to be back, whether you support them or not," Seward said. "This is a problem that's not just going to go away."

Nearly 800 out of about 2,000 Long Island convicts released in 2007 were back in jail or prison by 2011, the same ratio found in 2006.

Jovan Davis has been in a correctional facility more than five times and has spent about 10 years behind bars. When he went back to Suffolk County jail in Riverhead on June 8, months after he'd been released, he nodded at other inmates whom the guards call "the regulars" -- the ones who keep getting arrested.

"It's like, 'Hey, how you been, what are you in for now?' " said Davis, 32, of Riverhead.

It costs $62,000 a year in state and federal dollars to incarcerate someone in New York, according to the state corrections department.

By contrast, Hands Across Long Island, which was the area's only combined housing-and-treatment program until its funding ran out in 2010, charged $50,000 annually. Between 2008 and 2010, the program served 16 ex-convicts. One was rearrested.

Helping ex-convicts adjust

"We're years behind" in helping ex-convicts adjust, said Edith Thomas, director of the re-entry task force for Suffolk County, where recidivism is third-highest in the state -- not as high as the rates of upstate counties like Onandaga, where more than half of all ex-convicts return to jail.

In lean economic times, said Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research think tank, re-entry services can't be the priority. "Ideally, we could do everything," she said. "But if we're faced with tough budgets, policing that protects innocent people from criminals has to be first."

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, in a speech earlier this year announcing the appointment of Edward Webber as police commissioner, said care must be taken when deciding how to spend money on former convicts.

"The truth is that there are many programs operating that try to change people's lives and reduce recidivism but they have limited success at best," Bellone said.

Both Nassau and Suffolk have created task forces to combat recidivism through an annual grant that the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services has awarded since 2006. The task forces annually serve about 100 to 150 former prisoners, including Davis, identified by staff as most likely to struggle on the streets.

The department of corrections doesn't track the specific recidivism of clients assigned to the task forces, but the overall Islandwide rearrest rate stayed the same between 2007 and 2011.

Seward and others cite the nonprofit Fortune Society's Castle house in New York City as a model for helping ex-convicts re-enter society. The Castle, a former Catholic girls school at 140th Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan turned into a "one-stop" treatment center and shelter for ex-prisoners, opened in 2002.

"We are sophisticated. We integrate," said Glenn Martin, the society's vice president and an ex-convict who served 6 years in prison. "A bed to sleep in, counseling, classes -- it's all right there, and the staff of the different parts are working for the same program and cross-checking notes."

As of April 2012, he said, 142 out of 211 residents had maintained their housing for at least one year.

Waymond Norman, 41, of Hempstead, once spent 6 months in Nassau County jail. After he was released in August 2011, he went to the Fortune Society's building in Queens.

"They go the whole nine yards," Norman said, describing the cooking and math classes he takes there. "They got my back."

Such services are necessary to support prisoners, some researchers say.

"Folks getting out have limited human and social capital," said Jocelyn Fontaine, who specializes in re-entry at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center in Washington. "Prison provides little support, so you're released and you have nothing."

Janeece Strange, an ex-convict now working as assistant coordinator of the women's program at Beginning A New Life Inc. in Centereach, a nonprofit that serves the formerly incarcerated, said that services are plentiful on Long Island, though it took initiative on her part. "There's so many things available," she said. "When you come to our office, we have a big database. It worked for me. I took it by the horns -- everything they offered, I did.

"The reason you went in is out there waiting as soon as you get out," Strange said. "But if you have someone saying, 'Come in at 9 a.m., let's talk about housing, clothes' -- it can be done, when people are behind you."

Funding the programs

The Second Chance Act, which was passed in 2008, authorizes federal grants for nonprofits and government agencies that offer services such as addiction counseling and housing for people leaving correctional facilities.

The state issued $3.3 million in this fiscal year's round of the annual re-entry grant that was distributed to 19 counties at the end of July.

MacDonald said the programs deserving funds are those focusing on linking ex-convicts with employment. "Just throwing money at a nonprofit is not a wise use of taxpayer dollars," she said. "The best thing you can tell a parolee is to get a job. That's a starting point for transformation."

With just 15 beds on Long Island that are licensed through the state's re-entry program as appropriate housing for ex-convicts, the task forces struggle to place clients in a stable home, staff members say, never mind a home where treatment is part of domestic life.

Most clients reside in unlicensed, private sober homes that are set up for recovering addicts.

"I have a problem with these guys going to unlicensed, unregulated sober houses -- they're flophouses," said Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Medford), who has spoken against such homes before. "How can we do this to these people who are getting out of jail, and we're supposed to be helping them get their lives on track?"

Not all leaders view recidivism as a problem of scarce housing and social services.

"Counseling or having them play basketball or something isn't going to change what they're doing," said Assemb. Jim Conte (R-Huntington Station). "Spend money on keeping them in jail longer. If they're in prison, they can't commit another crime . . . Alternatives are a waste with the regulars."

Davis, who was released from the jail this summer after a charge of child endangerment was dismissed, had been on parole from October to April. During that time, he said, he struggled with a commute of several hours on the bus from the sober house where he lived in Selden -- the only place where he was accepted as a resident -- to an addiction program in Patchogue and then to the homes of his six children in Riverhead.

After 120 days, Davis said he had to move out and couldn't find anywhere to live besides his uncle's house in Riverhead. Davis was arrested about two months after he moved in.

"I felt like I was doing everything right, but getting nowhere," he said. "I was getting no results, making no money, just busing back and forth to programs."

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