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Imagine yourself in charge of a halfway house for felons just released from state and federal prisons. Your agency’s mission is to provide counseling and support services that will help these criminals find – and keep – jobs, adjust to life outside the walls, develop real-world interpersonal skills, take responsibility for their actions, respect others, and become productive members of society. Quite a task, isn’t it?

Your clients were tried for felony crimes and found guilty as charged by juries of their peers based upon evidence provided by police, prosecutors and witnesses. Judges accepted the juries’ verdicts and sentenced your clients to serve terms in prison.

Not everyone in prison is a criminal, Andy Dufresne for example, but most of them are

The crimes your clients committed include theft, burglary, and other crimes against property, like arson and grand theft auto. Some of the crimes your clients served time behind bars for were crimes against people, like rape, assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery, and murder. Many of your clients are very dangerous people – that’s why they were locked away in prison.

Clients are required to apply to halfway house programs

Those applicants who are admitted to these resident programs are on probation, defined as “Serving a suspended criminal sentence on condition that one conforms to certain legal terms and conditions.” As de facto warden, you have the option to send anyone who violates the rules straight back to prison, no hearing, no appeal. The rules include things like signing in and out, hours permitted away from the halfway house, daily chores, no fighting, no weapons, no drugs, and so on. 

When new residents arrive, counselors conduct intake interviews

They explain the rules, the reward and punishment systems, what is expected of residents, and how their performance will be judged. All residents are evaluated weekly, and the counselors write progress reports, behavior reports, job reports, chore reports and so on, like with any bureaucracy.

Like most social service agencies, you have a very small budget and find it hard to attract and retain good workers

Counselors have their own ways of working with clients, and not all of them are good ones. A few of your staff are excellent workers and committed to helping. The rest are employees looking for an easy job where they don’t have to do much. At the bottom of the employee barrel is sludge: employees who sleep at their desks knowing they can’t be fired and employees who sell drugs to resident junkies. 

With a dormitory full of former criminals and few competent counselors, what steps can you take to see that you don’t squander any of your meager resources?

Before you decide, take a look at these data:

  • Not everyone obeys the rules, and when caught, nine out of ten make excuses. The most frequent excuse heard from clients is that they didn’t know the rules or didn’t understand them and so are entitled to a Get Out of Jail Free card.
  • Recidivism is the tendency of criminals to commit new crimes after serving prison sentences. Studies show anywhere from half to three quarters of felons released from prison go back to a life of crime, are caught and end up back in prison again.
  • You have three types of clients:
    1. Many are career criminals who have no intent of getting a straight job and living a straight life. These are the ones that are going to commit new crimes and go right back into the penal system, some of them over and over again.
    2. Some never want to back to prison again. They get honest jobs and live honest lives.
    3. Some could go one way or the other, depending on the paths they choose and how things go for them.

As the director, how would you handle the situation?

If you said triage clients and eliminate systemic problems, you nailed it. Read on for two real-life solutions.

Here’s how one director used triage to allocate his resources:

He took what he knew about each of the halfway house’s client groups, figured out where his limited resources would be the most productive, and allocated them accordingly.

  1. Counseling and intervention don’t work on career criminals. This group has above average recidivism rates. Career criminals and likely recidivists are easy to identify by their arrest and incarceration histories. Most of the time counselors spend with them is wasted, going over the same simple rules again and again. Counselors should monitor activities of these clients but should not expect many of them to change their stripes. Nor should they devote much time trying to convince psychopaths and sociopaths of the value of living a good life.
  2. Those who plan to walk the straight and narrow need little counseling about the errors of their ways. This group has below average recidivism rates. They already know that they never want to go back to prison again. Counselors should meet with them to chart their progress and reinforce the good decisions they are making.
  3. The ones on the fence are the only ones where counseling can make a difference, which is the intent of the entire program. These clients should be given the most attention, support, and the very best efforts of the counselors.

And here’s what he did about the never-ending excuses given by hard-core criminals:

He distilled the program’s rules and regulations down to ten essentials and developed a simple, nothing fancy, nothing tricky, Ten Question True or False Test. Applicants were welcome to take the test as many times as they wanted, but needed to score 100% to be admitted to the program. All clients’ tests and scores were signed by the counselor and the criminal and notarized by the director. These documents became evidence for the files that showed the test takers are aware of all the rules in advance. When meeting with problem clients, counselors had photocopies of these documents on their desks. No more lame excuses, no more alibis.

The three lessons from this case study are these:
  1. Know that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
  2. Don’t treat all your clients and customers the same way. Move your limited resources around so you can put them where they won’t be wasted and you can do some good.
  3. Take a close look at your systemic problems and find ways to fix them.

Want to read more articles like this? Click here for free, no-ad, no-tracking access to the hundreds of articles David has written since 2016. He covers lots of topics, always showing there is more to things than meet the eye.


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