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By Tim Townshend

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Nancy McCarthy began her remarks at the St. Louis Ex-Offender Reentry Summit on Tuesday by telling the story of a young man who, she believed, embodied the problem society faces with prisoners who have served their sentences and are sent back to the streets.

McCarthy is a regional administrator for the probation and parole board of the Missouri Department of Corrections. She was on the campus of St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley this week to help relaunch and re-energize a partnership between the state and faith-based organizations aimed at resettling ex-convicts and reducing recidivism rates.

The young man about whom McCarthy spoke had visited the probation office at District 7-South in Jefferson City the week earlier after being released from a 120-day treatment program.

His plans for post-incarceration life had included living with his mother. But when he arrived at his mother's house, she had been evicted, and he didn't know where she was living. When he finally found his mother, there was no room for him. Same at his father's house. His grandmother had room, but since he had stolen from her before going to prison, she wouldn't have him. He ended up, temporarily, on his aunt's couch.

The man was 22 and had never held a job. He had quit school at 16 after completing ninth grade. The children's division of the Missouri Department of Social Services was looking for him to pay child support.

"Is he a model citizen?" McCarthy asked the crowd at Tuesday's summit. "No. Is he responsible for where he is? Yes. Now what? If it takes a village to raise a child, imagine what it takes to raise an adult."

During 2007, about 16 percent of the 1.2 million people on parole and at risk of reincarceration in the United States returned to prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The Missouri prison population is about 31,000, and about 21,000 offenders are released each year in the state, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections. There are 1,400 people in St. Louis city correctional facilities; 1,200 in St. Louis County correctional facilities; and 17,000 from the city and the county who are under state supervision. Almost all of Missouri's prisoners — 97 percent — will be released back into society before they die.

In 2002, Missouri was chosen as the first state to take part in a national prisoner re-entry initiative launched by the National Institute of Corrections, part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The purpose of the program, called the Transition from Prison to the Community Model, was to increase public safety by turning former prisoners into productive citizens. In 2003, officials designed the Missouri Re-entry Process, with similar programs soon under way in Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, North Dakota, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island. The model promoted collaboration among corrections departments, community organizations and state agencies responsible for education and mental health.

"If you begin working with the offender from the time they come into the prison to the time of release, you can address their risk to re-offend," said Peggy Burke, principal of the Center for Effective Public Policy, a nonprofit criminal justice training organization based in Silver Spring, Md. "You can reduce those risks so when they come out into the community. They have been prepared, and they have a support network in place."

Burke said Missouri has been on the vanguard nationally.

"Many others have learned from Missouri's experience because the state's been at this longer," she said. "It was one of the pilot states the NIC worked with and has shared a lot of information and strategies with other states."

In 2006, the Corrections Department set up local re-entry teams across the state, including the Missouri Eastern Region Re-entry Group Effort that worked in the St. Louis area. MERRGE began to create local partnerships, including ones with faith-based groups.

"There's always been a strong interest by religious groups to come in and work with offenders," George Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections and longtime corrections professional, said in an interview at Tuesday's event. "For a lot of churches it was about making a spiritual effort to change the guys. But the faith-based community has changed as well. Churches that made connections inside are now following guys and helping them when they're on the outside."

About 350 people attended Tuesday's summit, which was an effort at rebranding and re-energizing the MERRGE program, said Les Johnson, vice president for partnerships at the Area Resources for Community and Human Services, one of the summit's hosts.

MERRGE is now called St. Louis Alliance for Re-entry, and the idea of the summit was to share best practices among community agencies that deal with any aspect of re-entry — from addiction services to job training to housing — and involve as many people as possible in prisoner re-entry at the local level.

The Lutheran Foundation of St. Louis is one of the local organizations that the Department of Corrections has partnered with. The foundation gave the alliance $10,000 in seed money for its administrative costs and made 'services to prisoners/ex-offenders and their families" one of five funding focus areas in its 2009 strategic funding plan.

Melinda McAliney, the foundation's program officer, said that "faith is at the core of everything we do," and that "we are called to be the hands and feet of our risen savior."

To that end, McAliney said, the foundation has been very interested in funding efforts that better society and promote a healthy, successful prisoner re-entry program in St. Louis.

"Our dollars follow where and when Christians are engaged," McAliney said. "We see our grants as partnerships, and we want to be at the table for programs like STAR."