Offenders graduate to new lives

From the Portland Tribune, by Peter Korn. June 2, 2011

Frequently arrested ‘thorns’ bloom in City Hall ceremony

A tearful Darlean Armstead clutches her certificate after graduating from the Portland Police Bureau's Service Coordination Team rehabilitation program for the city's most frequently arrested citizens.

A tearful Darlean Armstead clutches her certificate after graduating from the Portland Police Bureau's Service Coordination Team rehabilitation program for the city's most frequently arrested citizens.

Once a year, Portland City Council chambers are turned over to an awards ceremony involving the city’s most frequently arrested residents. The proceedings are a little rowdier than most City Hall events, with a fair amount of hooting from the gallery, applause that goes beyond the polite variety and a lot of shared and raucous laughter.

Last week was the annual graduation ceremony for the police bureau’s Service Coordination Team. Eleven men and one woman, all previously homeless, addicted and longtime thorns in the sides of the police, received certificates that unofficially pronounced them contributing members of society. For years they had been anything but that.

These 12 had individually been arrested dozens, and in some cases hundreds of times. Most of those arrests either directly or indirectly involved drugs — carrying, selling or committing crimes to feed their habits. Now, after a not insignificant amount of public money spent on their housing and treatment, all had been pronounced clean and sober and off the street.

The difficulty of their individual struggles could be measured in the gallery whoops and peels of laughter from their friends and fellow members of the Service Coordination Team program.

Darlean Armstead
, the lone graduating woman, told the nearly packed chambers, “Whoever thought I’d be standing here 217 days clean and sober? You’ve all seen me good, bad and ugly. I’m back.”

Indeed, Armstead, 29, admits she was “a menace to society” for much too long. She tried and failed six different drug rehabilitation programs before finding her current success with the Service Coordination Team. Armstead, a resident of North Portland foster homes most of her life, says she doesn’t even know how many arrests she’s got on her record, but they were numerous.

Armstead says she started on drugs at 15.

“It was cigarettes, then it was sex then it was marijuana and alcohol,” she says.

By the time she was 16 an abusive older man had introduced Armstead to cocaine.

Her therapist, sitting in the balcony, shouted, “Go girl,” when she walked up to receive her graduation certificate and Armstead shed tears as she held the document to the applause of those around her, many of whom had been through a struggle similar to hers.

A smiling police officer who had known Armstead from the street came by to congratulate her. Laughing, Armstead, whose last job was as a filing clerk at 16, and who never graduated high school, told the officer what she needed from him now. “Give me a job,” she said.

Diallo Keeton, another graduate, told the audience, “I’m a work in progress.”

Darrell White, a former graduate who served as emcee for much of the morning’s event, told the assembled, “We are not ordinary people.”

Austin Raglione, in charge of the police bureau’s Service Coordination Team, explained the rationale for the program.

“This is an expensive program, but this program is much cheaper than incarceration,” she said.

In fact, on May 25 the City Council approved the Service Coordination Team’s budget for next year at just short of $1.9 million, $130,000 more than last year but still less than it was two years ago. The program has cost about $6 million so far, and it has yielded 54 graduates who once were regulars when it came to getting arrested and now rarely take up police officers’ time or county jail space.

$6 million x 54 graduates = $111,111. This is the most expensive addiction treatment modality we’ve ever encountered. (Eric Clapton’s resort / hideout / treatment center in Antigua ($31,000 for a four week program + medical detox). No, Raglione is wrong – Portland’s Service Coordination Team + treatment at Volunteers of America is far far more expensive than incarceration.

Emcee White summed up the point of the celebration and the Service Coordination Team fairly succinctly:

“You look around the room, we cost the city a whole lot of money.”