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Under whose carpet?

Over a generation our collective response to crime and other social ills has been largely this: Get rid of it, get it out of my sight, I don’t want to be bothered with it. For crime, the simple solution: Lock ’em up. There’s still someone out there doing something bad? Lock ’em up longer. Mandatory minimums. Three strikes and you’re out. With the result that this country, and some parts of it in particular, have bulging prisons, enormous bills for corrections, and all the rest.

And a lot of those people we’ve locked up, out of sight and out of mind, are beginning to return to society, sentences partly or fully complete. Now what do we do?

We’re jointly responsible for this mess, and over time we’re all probably going to have to give a little as we work our way out of it. There’s going to be a lot of conflict, and some of it will become political. Some of what’s coming in many more places, emerged at a meeting this morning in Boise. The people involved there included the mayor and two former opponents for a state Senate seat, along with neighbors, attorneys and others, but in the end we’re all involved.

[This is a long post, continued overleaf.]

Start with Dennis Mansfield, years ago a Republican candidate for Congress (and more recently for the state Senate), very clearly of the social-conservative sector, whose views were very much what you’d expect from that shorthand description. But since the arrest, conviction and prison sentence of one of his children, many of his views have been deeply shaken and stirred. In recent years, for example, he’s spent a good deal of time volunteering social work in Idaho prisons and jails. And his take on crime, criminals and incarceration have undergone a big change.

There’s this, for example, from a recent e-mail he sent here: “Those in the GOP who seem to believe the bla-bla of ‘3 Strikes and you’re out’ for felons, are nuts. It’s crazy. My personal experience over these last many years with my son, his cellmates, our work in Ada County Jail and now in the Prison is this: 85% of all felons should not be incarcerated. Neo-cons live in a world of fear-based ‘word clutter’ and tend to traffic in promoting confusion and vetoing positive ideas, to assuage their own fear and belief system(s).”

Out of the behind-bars work came New Hope Community Health, which its web site says “began as a result of two years of Bible studies in Ada County Jail, as well as a practical demonstration of God’s love for those of our community that have been discarded & forgotten, showing them honor and love, and treating them with dignity.” It has developed so far four residential homes for about eight former inmates apiece, funded through grants and other sources.

This is not the only program of its sort in the Northwest; there are quite a few others, and they have been smacking into controversy, often with neighbors, with some regularity. Near our base, a highly-regarded program called ThugzOffDrugz at McMinnville, Oregon, was bounced from various locations – a church was even central to one ouster – before finally finding a stable home. (Its stated goal: “Thugz Off Drugz is a community effort to deal with crime. We will accomplish this by reaching out to the active addicts\alcoholics in our community. We provide a genuine opportunity to change by creating access to housing, food, clothing and structured living. We provide support and resouces by networking with other agencies to provide counseling, identification, schooling, and job placement.”) No one wanted to live near one of these homes. Neither could anyone deny that, well, they’re going to have to live somewhere.

Mansfield’s attempt has generated some uproar. His first move was to open a house before telling the neighbors about it. “It’s a Catch-22 for us,” he wrote. “If we tell the neighbors that we’re bringing a Staffed, Safe and Sober Home into their tract, they immediately think of sex offenders, et al. If we do not tell them (a la our very first house) we can theoretically remain under the radar. However, should a disgruntled Realtor unveil our plan (ala our second house) the ‘fit hits the shan’. Still working on the best way to tell folks without causing undue probs.” The work doubtless is becoming increasingly urgent, as, he writes, “We are on-target to possibly meet our goal of 30 homes by 12/31/07.”

The radar has quickly refocused, of course, and soon letters like this one appeared in Boise Mayor Dave Bieter‘s hotline: “I was calling to voice my concern on the new Christian Hope or whatever Mr. Mansfield’s organization is called. They’ve opened the house on Astor Place that has what I believe put my children and family at risk, and I would appreciate any opportunity I could get to discuss this with the Mayor.”

The dispute has emerged into the Boise news media; the Idaho Statesman has delivered an editorial strongly endorsing Mansfield’s efforts. It points out: “Idaho has about 1,000 convicted felons in jail or prison who could leave, saving taxpayers $50 per day, because a judge has granted them permission to move into a half-way home. But the Valley’s half-way homes are full.”

This morning Bieter hosted a meeting on the dispute, including Mansfield and several people working with him, neighbors critical of the project, city officials and others. State Senator John Andreason, R-Boise, who lives in the area and represents some of the angry neighbors, was also there; we should note here that last year Mansfield challenged (unsuccessfully) Andreason in the Republican Senate primary. Here’s Mansfield’s description of it.

The mtg went as well as any “angry” neighborhood mtg could go. Met the folks, talked with them, listened to the Mayor and his staff. Good people, all. Heard the City Attorney reiterate to all of us at the table that programs like New Hope assist a federally protected group (through the 1988 Drug Addiction Bill – Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended) and, though we may not approve of who lives next to us, none of us have the right to protest them or extract them for our neighborhoods. (Substitute “assisted living” or “abused women” and see if it is any clearer…even try substituting “minorities” and watch the obvious reactions.)

From this 1st meeting at Boise City Hall, we agreed to further communicate on any future issue. The Mayor’s staff did a favor to all concerned by bringing us all together for better communication.

Then a grenade was thrown….

Without apparently knowing what was ahead of us all, Mayor Dave Bieter graciously gave State Sen. John Andreason the last few minutes of the mtg to address the whole group. The Senator acknowledged the Mayor and the neighbors and then looked me square in the face and said this: “I want to congratulate you, Dennis, on making huge profits off of your son’s drug addiction.” I was so taken aback, that at first I didn’t know if he was serious. (Oh, he was serious alright.) I think I even haltingly said, “Are you being honest?” or something to that effect. He had an agenda and he had the floor…only for a short while, though.

(No kidding, he actually said those words….15 or so people’s jaws dropped, I think even the Mayor’s jaw. Rep. Lynn Luker [R-Boise] was there, as were key members of the Mayor’s staff. I could tell that all were stunned…and many were incensed.)

I wanted to react harshly; but the better angels of my nature prevailed. My staff and I interrupted the Senator and immediately stood up, I thanked those in attendance, and then spoke briefly but passionately to all about the hell my bride, Susan, my other kids and I have lived through for the past 7+ years with Nate’s addiction — and how honored we are to help ex-inmates today. Then I simply turned to John and addressed him personally: “Shame on you, John.” And with that my New Hope staff and I walked out of the meeting.

By phone this afternoon, Andreason said the account of his comment was essentially accurate, quoting himself as saying, “I want to congratulate you on your ability to come up with a plan that will enable you to make a lot of money out of your son going to prison for drug addiction.” Reflecting, he said, “I thought he pretty much earned the statement I made.” The number of houses Mansfield has planned, he said, would generate a lot of income. Andreason said he has heard from neighbors about a number of disturbances, noise and cars coming and going at all hours, at the houses. He cited one man who says he wants to sell his house as a result. And he said he’s been fielding complaints for weeks.

He cautions that how you feel about this kind of thing can change when it’s them moving into the house next to yours. True; but that doesn’t necessarily change the right or wrong of the matter.

We haven’t examined the houses; we can’t testify to what sort of disturbances may or may not be happening there. Mansfield does have both an obligation and an interest in keeping these to a minimum, and getting compliance shouldn’t be especially difficult. (This much at least – adherence to standards of neighborhood behavior and avoidance of nuisances and obnoxious activities – is something the neighbors can insist on.) And the stealth house buys and openings Andreason and Mansfield both describe are problematic: At best, the debate is simply being forestalled, not avoided, and it has a feel of being underhanded.

But Andreason’s comment to Mansfield is the sort of personal attack that would be gaveled down in the state Senate; if it generated some negative response, little wonder. And beside the point as well.

And two other points are worth considering.

One is substitution. Forget that it’s Mansfield and the ex-inmates; as he says, “Substitute ‘assisted living’ or ‘abused women’ and see if it is any clearer … even try substituting ‘minorities’ and watch the obvious reactions.” This isn’t the reach it might seem: These residents are not violent killers or sex offenders, and are deemed by the courts safe for release.

And this: These people are going to have to go somewhere. We can’t all get away forever with saying “not here.” You can try sweeping them under the carpet, but sooner or later, that carpet is going to be yours.

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