Saved after 126 arrests: Program offers hope of changing costly chronic criminals

From the Portland Tribune, March 10, 2011

Darrell White’s police file reads like the first half of a crime novel. Between the ages of 12 and 44, White was arrested 126 times by Portland police and charged with crimes ranging from cocaine possession to various forms of theft and larceny.

White, 46, was one of the city’s original “Dirty 30,” a select group of chronic drug and property crime offenders targeted seven years ago because they were clogging up the criminal justice system and costing taxpayers millions of dollars. He says he specialized in ripping off people who came to Old Town and downtown looking to buy drugs, but he also was arrested repeatedly in Northeast Portland.

And then it stops. White’s police record abruptly ends with an October 2007 entry when he was charged with cocaine possession. White remembers that day like a favorite movie: what happened, what might have happened, all of it.

He was one day away from a promised public housing apartment on the city’s east side, a day away from picking up the key to much more than living space.

“It was a chance to get out of Old Town. I couldn’t get clean here,” says White, a longtime crack addict.

White knew exactly what was at stake, knew it in the way an addict does. That afternoon he was walking around Old Town. He had $15 in his pocket and in just a few blocks he had turned it into $70 by buying a rock of crack cocaine, breaking it in half and selling at a profit.

He figured on one last transaction, then he’d cross the street and be home free in his room at a single room occupancy hotel. Except, the police caught him at that one last transaction at Northwest Couch Street and Third Avenue. His arrest cost him his chance at the apartment, but produced a change in attitude.

“I was right there and I missed it. I told myself if I ever got a chance again, I would take advantage of it,” White says.

That chance would come.

Going straight, after 256 arrests

Troy Ford, a few years ago, was inching toward the top of the city’s list of most frequent offenders, with 256 arrests over 24 years. Like White, Ford was an addict. Like White’s, his adult life was a constant merry-go-round involving the streets, arrests and jail time. Nearly all his arrests involved drug possession or low-level crime intended to feed his addiction — shoplifting, small-time theft and trespassing, with an occasional assault mixed in.

Ford, 43, spent 18 years living on Portland’s streets, addicted and homeless and preying on others. His last arrest was in October 2009.

Now, he hasn’t been high for 16 months, since, like White, he graduated from a special Police Bureau program aimed at turning around the lives of habitual criminals. That program — which operates under the bureaucratic-sounding label of “Service Coordination Team” — is what made the defining difference for both White and Ford, transforming them from serial offenders into law-abiding citizens.

At a City Hall graduation ceremony last year, when Ford’s name was announced, “there was an audible gasp in the air,” according to Austin Raglione, program manager for the Service Coordination Team. The gasp, Raglione says, came from police officers in the audience who simply could not believe that Ford, a familiar, forlorn figure to anyone who had worked the Old Town beat, had finally gone straight.

The police call these people frequent flyers. Residents of the neighborhoods to which they come for their fixes and the means to pay for the drugs — Old Town most notably — call them scourges. The city has tried a variety of tactics aimed at targeting the frequent flyers, from enacting Drug Free Exclusion Zones to dedicating special jail beds so they can be immediately taken into custody.

In some states, habitual offender statutes are enacted to keep drug offenders from ever getting to the point where they need to be arrested 256 times, though scarce jail space often renders those statutes ineffective, experts say.

A $2 million criminal

The truth is, city after city has found habitual drug offenders to be among the most intractable and expensive societal problems. A 2009 Oregon Criminal Justice Commission analysis estimated that every felony drug arrest costs taxpayers $6,098. Convictions cost another $2,081. Jail costs were pegged at $41,331 per year and probation costs at $2,895 per year.

Other studies estimate lower costs, but both White and Ford, conservatively, cost taxpayers more than $2 million dollars each as a result of their criminal activity.

A recent Portland State University study of 14 habitual drug offenders estimated their criminal activity cost taxpayers about $2 million annually — nearly $150,000 each per year. And that includes only the crimes for which they were caught.

The PSU study notes that the 14 chronic offenders were spending more than $27,000 each on drugs per year. To get that $27,000, each offender had to steal more than $81,000 worth of merchandise.

Traditional drug and alcohol treatment doesn’t work for these hardcore criminal addicts, experts say. Providing housing doesn’t stem their criminal activity. The majority have mental health issues in addition to their addiction, says Pamela Kelly, director of rehabilitation services for Volunteers of America in Oregon, which contracts with the city of Portland to provide treatment.

Volunteers of America Oregon specializes in treating substance-abusing, high-risk criminal offenders, Kelly says, but attempts to treat the Old Town frequent offenders with the same methods haven’t worked — their criminality is too well ingrained.

The Service Coordination Team is the police bureau’s answer.

Every Monday afternoon, a meeting takes place at the Team’s Old Town office, where police officers, district attorneys, corrections officials, parole officers and social service providers review the latest citywide arrest data. They look at who was arrested that week, and who entered treatment, who might be willing to enter treatment, and who dropped out of sight. They update their client list. The original Dirty 30 list has grown to 400, but the program now serves criminals from neighborhoods outside the downtown/Old Town area.

The goal of the Service Coordination Team is to winnow the list down — ideally, to reduce the number of chronic offenders, and realistically, to at least reduce the number of crimes committed by them. The team has access to services and resources that makes it the envy of other social-service providers.

Program reduces arrests

The operating principle for the Service Coordination Team is simple: target the city’s most frequent drug and property crime offenders with arrests whenever they break the law. Then, use the threat of jail as leverage to have them choose to enter the team’s program instead. And finally, have available for these chronic offenders immediate access to publicly funded housing, addiction programs and all sorts of counseling.

The program makes sense, Raglione says, given the overwhelming financial burden these criminals represent to taxpayers with their repeated arrests, trials and jailings. The team is funded through the police bureau, Raglione points out, and it is the police bureau whose resources are most exhausted by the activities of the chronic offenders.

More important, Raglione says, the Service Coordination Team is making progress. In fact, she says that the program has saved taxpayers more than $20 million in jail time alone since its inception in 2003.

Raglione can show that offenders on the chronic offenders list are getting arrested much less frequently than they once were. Five years ago, she says, an offender would need to get arrested about 10 times a month to make the list of top 350 offenders. Today, one arrest a month will gain entry to the list.

But that figure is misleading. Many of those arrests five years ago were for Drug Free Zone exclusions, when police were using the zones as an enforcement tool in Old Town. The zones were eliminated in 2007.

Also, diminished prosecution of drug cases has given police less incentive to make arrests for drug possession.

Still, the program’s treatment component has graduated 43 men and five women who had been chronic offenders. Those 48, prior to entering the program, had averaged 10 or more years of jail or prison time each. The majority are, Raglione says, staying clean and sober and not committing crimes today. With county data that estimates the cost of keeping one prisoner in jail at $178 a day, Raglione has her $20 million-plus in saved jail costs and then some — if those 48 graduates stay out of jail from now on.

The Service Coordination Team lost about 30 percent of its $2.5 million budget last year, leading to the loss of what some believe is a critical component of the program — a regular walking beat officer in Old Town who keeps a sharp eye on the neighborhood’s frequent offenders.

“It’s essential,” says Multnomah County Senior Deputy District Attorney Mark McDonnell of a walking beat in Old Town. “This whole thing doesn’t work well if there isn’t a police presence. The whole idea is immediate sanctions and intensive supervision. If you don’t have the police presence, you’re not going to see the guys who are violating their probation and then there won’t be the immediate sanctions.”
Preferential treatment?

The Service Coordination Team grew out of a number of earlier attempts to address the chronic offender problem in Old Town. Officer Jeff Myers led the first efforts to identify the offenders with what became known as the Dirty 30 list, and have special resources set aside to deal with them, from dedicated jail beds when jail beds were in short supply to on-demand housing slots when homeless housing was equally hard to find.

The earlier versions of the program, known as Project 57 and the Neighborhood Livability Enforcement Program, became controversial and the focus of a largely unsuccessful lawsuit in 2009. Raglione says the program has changed in response to some of those objections, yet some concerns still remain.

Lane Borg, executive director of Metropolitan Public Defenders, says secrecy has always been his greatest concern. The idea of a secret police list, even if it is used to get long-term addicts into treatment, sounds alarms for people who care about civil liberties, Borg says. If the police bureau were to embrace transparency for the program, Borg says, he might be willing to support it.

In response, Raglione provided the Tribune a copy of the list of 400 and says she would do the same for others who make a public records request. She says the criteria for getting on and off the list is basically a computer run of arrests for drug-related crimes, and that she will share the methodology with anyone.

Borg says there is danger in providing special access to social services and housing only for people with multiple criminal convictions. People with fewer convictions, who are homeless or who have never been arrested, don’t get access to the wet housing (publicly funded apartments in which drinking is allowed) and residential drug programs immediately available to the program’s chronic offenders.

“We need to understand, by making convictions the gatekeeper to these resources, we’re criminalizing all these people,” Borg says. “We’re saying, ‘You have to get convicted to get resources.’ We’re going to keep a lot of people in the underclass as long as we require a conviction to access services.”

Raglione says the justification is in the cost/benefit analysis — it’s Police Bureau money being spent on the program and these are the offenders who are costing law enforcement the most.

DA McDonnell is convinced the program, despite its annual $1.67 million price tag, saves the county a great deal of money. Chronic offenders arrested for violating their parole can spend up to two months in jail awaiting a hearing with a judge, he says. That’s a major expense not for police, but for the county, which runs the jail.

The program is far from a panacea. Volunteers of America’s Pamela Kelly, who oversees the program’s rehab component, says only a small number of the program’s participants will stop using drugs and committing crimes altogether. Even in a normal addict population, she says, only about one in three undergoing drug rehab will immediately and completely recover.

When chronic offenders relapse, Kelly says, they commit new crimes and eventually get arrested. So re-arrest rates provide a peek into how well the Service Coordination Team program is working.

According to Police Bureau numbers, more than 200 chronic offenders have received some service from the program since 2003. The average arrest rate for program participants has decreased 36 percent since 2006, though the lack of Drug Free Zone exclusion arrests is certainly a factor in the reduction.

Raglione says the program will yield better numbers in time, as service providers learn how to better help the offenders who begin to relapse, and how to better support them once they leave the program. Raglione is also counting on a growing pool of graduates mentoring those still in treatment.

Darrell White, now overseeing 30 downtown Clean and Safe workers as a supervisor with nonprofit Central City Concern and on the verge of buying an eastside home, has become one of those mentors.

He’s become one of the Service Coordination Team’s best on-the-street salesmen. And he knows, as does Raglione, that when it comes to the city’s most frequent criminal offenders, there doesn’t appear to be much of an alternative.

“We’re the last house on the block,” Raglione says.