By Dick Hughes, special to Marion County
"Who would have thought 10 years ago that the Marion County Reentry Initiative would have seen such impressive results?
"Reductions in recidivism by more than 50 percent.
"More than 100 employers stepping up to help.
"And, most importantly, lives changed for the better."
Those words from Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron set the tone for MCRI's 10th Annual Community Breakfast, which drew several hundred guests to the Salem Convention Center on Oct. 25. They included law enforcement officers, employers, elected officials and others.
MCRI gives people a second chance while achieving a positive return on the taxpayers' investment. When formerly incarcerated individuals make a successful transition to life outside prison, the community is stronger, the burden on state and local services is less, and the incidence of crime is lower.
Cameron, then a state legislator, spoke at the first breakfast in 2009.
"We … were just starting to envision how we might tackle serious barriers facing people who are returning to our communities after paying their debt to society," he recalled. "Barriers like housing, employment, addictions, mental Illness, and lack of family and community support."
What started small has grown into a national model. As Commissioner Janet Carlson, a leading force behind the initiative, said in opening this year's breakfast, "Did you ever imagine it would be this big?"
The breakfast featured videos reprising clients' work with MCRI through those years. The common thread was the personal connections that helped them succeed.
Over those 10 years, MCRI has served more than 14,000 formerly incarcerated individuals. Nearly 6,000 have found assistance at the De Muniz Resource Center, a one-stop reentry center, since it opened in 2011. SOAR (Student Opportunity for Achieving Results) – an intensive program focused on gaining employment and overcoming substance abuse – just graduated its 30th class.
Statistical analysis verifies that these and other MCRI programs reduce recidivism and increase post-prison employment. But MCRI is about individuals, not abstract statistics, and a number of those success stories were at the breakfast, including:
Rudy Montes, who just gained his commercial driver license, had been borrowing his girlfriend's car to get to work. Carlson presented him with the keys to a refurbished Jeep from Wheels and Wishes, the nonprofit arm of AJ's Auto Repair.
Jill Shier, who struggled with mental illness along with overcoming her criminal background, and through the MCRI has become Carlson's dear friend. Carlson told the audience that she has learned more about mental health from being part of Shier's life than in all her many years as a government official and public school teacher.
This was Carlson's final MCRI breakfast before retiring as a county commissioner. She and her husband, Dee, are relocating to be closer to family.
"My goal when we started this event 10 years ago was to help this community understand on a more personal level what life is like for people returning to our communities from prison and jail," she said. "This is about people who have made serious mistakes, but have paid their debt and are wanting our acceptance."
The community does understand, donating volunteer time and more than $120,000 to MCRI. Those monies have paid for eyeglasses, ID cards, GED fees and similar items not covered by government funds; and since 2016, a portion of the funds have supported victim assistance through the Center for Hope and Safety.
A special need this year is $30,000 to continue the work of a second "navigator" at the De Muniz Resource Center who connects clients to housing, jobs, and health insurance.
Carlson was emotional as she thanked the community for celebrating MCRI's 10th anniversary.
She is the one who deserves the community's thanks. The Marion County Reentry Initiative is both a heartwarming and a cost-effective return on investment.