A hearing convened last month by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton on the operation of the city’s halfway houses has revealed that when it comes to reducing crime and recidivism among ex-offenders, the privately-run facilities could do a better job.

“The hearing revealed counterproductive inflexibility among some personnel at halfway houses, frustrating offenders’ efforts to comply with the rules, find and maintain employment, and reunite with their families,” said Norton, who relied on testimony from Michael White, a former resident of Hope Village halfway house in southeast Washington, in part during the Feb. 3 Capitol Hill meeting.

According to the congresswoman’s office, White’s testimony also focused on mandatory substance abuse classes offered mid-week during work hours — which he said makes it difficult for offenders to secure and maintain employment. The hearing also took the Bureau of Prison (BOP) authorities and halfway house operators to task over procedures that she said tend to spark anger among ex-offenders during times they are working out anger management issues.

There are four halfway houses in the District — Efforts From Ex-Convicts (EFEC), Extended House, Fairview and Hope Village —with just one designated for females. Their goal is to provide reintegration and transitional services for offenders at the end of their sentences. EFEC for example, has been in operation for more than three decades and is operated and run by ex-offenders.

During her hearing entitled, “Halfway Home to the District: The Role of Halfway Houses in Reducing Crime and Recidivism in the Nation’s Capital,” Norton shed light on BOP’s criteria for deciding which ex-offenders get admission into halfway houses. In doing so, she also committed BOP’s intent to resume providing non-driver license photo identifications to former inmates, noting that many routinely lack them. Norton also questioned BOP’s practice of allowing halfway house operators sole discretion surrounding which releasees to accept or reject for admission to their facilities.

Norton also expressed dismay that while BOP officials could not elaborate on any criteria for entry at the facilities, their decisions have been usually made “without guidance,” on a case-by-case basis. BOP spokesman Edmund Ross said his agency would not comment on Norton’s hearing. He also refrained from saying to what extent transitions to halfway houses have been successful.  Ross said although there’s no specific criteria for releasing people to halfway houses, the process is an involved one.

“We believe re-entry centers, as we now call them, are an intricate part of the release process and ensures that individuals return to their communities prepared to live crime-free lives and be productive citizens,” Ross said. “We create a release plan for prisoners that literally begins when they come into a BOP facility, and the last portion of incarceration is geared toward re-entry through residential re-entry centers.”

Nancy LaVigne, director of the for the Urban Institute at the Washington, DC-based Justice Policy Center, testified on risks aligned with high- and medium-risk offenders released to halfway houses. She said that in 2008 alone, 2,900 former prisoners were released into custody of the city’s facilities.

“I said during the hearing that if you look at literature across the country on studies about whether halfway houses are effective, what we find is that they can be effective under certain circumstances,” LaVigne said. “Meaning specifically, that while they tend to achieve the desired results for people who are designated as medium- and high-security, the tend to be detrimental for those who are designated as low-security, and that those people are better off just going back to their families and communities.”

LaVigne explained that security levels take into consideration several factors, including crimes for which offenders are currently serving time and other measurements such as the extent of their criminal history and seriousness of offenses. She said however, that behavior in prison and if ex-offenders are married “seem over time,” to be good indicators to low-crime occurrences and recidivism.

District Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michon Parker said in a statement to the AFRO that the city’s approach to halfway house placement is not typical, in that, judges have the authority to place pretrial detainees in facilities regardless of their charge or circumstances.

“Of the 121 halfway house beds that DOC is funded to oversee, 80 percent, on any given day, are court-ordered pretrial detainees,” Parker said. “With pre-trial detainees the courts have the latitude to make the adjustments and modifications to detainees’ status.”

Rhozier Brown, founder of Inner Voices, a grassroots advocacy organization for former and current inmates, has lived in several halfway houses and is convinced of their effectiveness.

“We need more of them because a lot of men and women being released from prison don’t have a place to go,” Brown said. He alluded to “discriminatory practices” among public housing complexes that won’t allow ex-offenders living accommodations. He said that as a result, a lot of people are being forced into shelters.

Brown said the community needs to step up and be more supportive of such facilities and let go of the “not- in-my backyard” mentality.

“Halfway houses also help with job transitions and to build self-esteem, so they’re vital and without them, the city would have a few hundred more people out there on the streets,” Brown said. “I don’t see what the problem is with that,” said Brown,” because when they leave the halfway houses they move back into the neighborhood anyway.”