KANSAS CITY – Nearly two-thirds of all parolees nationwide have committed at least one serious crime within three years of release, but a pilot project of the Missouri Department of Corrections aims to improve the system by involving the community.
Project Connect was launched more than a year ago in Kansas City, using community volunteers to help supervise paroled criminals.
And this more personable approach to rehabilitating criminals seems to be working. So far only three of the 51 Project Connect parolees have been locked up for new crimes.
"I've been staying clean," said parolee Kenneth Johnson, out of prison nearly a year after doing almost two years for assault.
"Just everything going excellent," said Johnson, who considers himself a new man.
He credits much of his about-face to the people involved in the project.
Instead of checking in with the law once a month, Johnson is required to meet with some of his neighbors.
"It kind of makes me feel better because they are taking time out to spend time with an ex-felon," he said.
Ruth Austin, who at age 65 became the oldest person ever hired as a probation and parole officer in Missouri, is the founder of this pilot program.
The difference is that this project offers reinforcement that standard parole programs do not, she said.
"What it says to them is here's a group of people who volunteer their time," she explained.
"They really care about me. They really would like for me to change what I'm doing and to change my life."
"We help by giving them resources," said Virginia Williams, a Project Connect volunteer.
Williams said the volunteers keep their eyes on parolees, making sure they attend their monthly meetings and keep on target with their rehabilitation into society.
The Justice Department is currently reviewing Project Connect. Kansas City's parole experiment may eventually impact the way all criminals are treated.
Kenneth Johnson says he won’t be a statistic. "It’s actually keeping me out of trouble," he said. "Because I know if I get in trouble, I’m going back and I don't want to go back."