March 31, 2015

Theresa Dickinson had tears in her eyes while accepting her certificate at the March 5 Milestone Ceremony celebrating Department of Community Justice clients who successfully completed 120 days of supervision.

When Theresa Dickinson hit rock bottom, it could be easily described as the loneliest pain for the 51-year-old mother. Her final descent involved a destructive cycle of crack-cocaine use before a probation revocation and near four-month stay in a jail cell. 

“This was my first time really spending time in jail. I had never been to jail for more than 10 days,” said Dickinson. “I was thinking this is a sign from God and while I was in court I was thinking whatever the judge tells me to do I’m going to do.”

Life has never been easy for the Portland native who describes a generational drug crisis affecting both parents. Her father was a drug dealer who bounced in and out of the prison. Her mother sold sex for money and eventually lost her life to a heroin addiction. At 21-years-old, Dickinson’s back and forth battle selling and using crack-cocaine took hold and she was stuck in a vicious cycle of drug use, treatment and relapses.

By the time she reached her 30s, Dickinson was a mother of a young child and still deep in the throes of drugs. At times she was able to stay clean for long stretches, with one such stint of sobriety lasting as long as 13 ½ years. However, addiction always crept back in.

The Department of Community Justice’s Truls Neal celebrates the success of MCJRP clients who have completed 120 days of supervision.

“I was prescribed narcotics, oxycontin and morphine and I had degenerative disk disease. I ended up splitting out of a nine-year relationship at age 36 or 37,” said Dickinson.

“Basically I started just doing things for Theresa. I started going out to the clubs, started selling dope and smoking crack-cocaine again and drinking.”

Last December, at 51-years-old, Dickinson found herself sitting in a jail cell. And now -- with a history of drug dealing, drug abuse, and occasional bouts of violence -- her future, with a prison sentence looming looked bleak. But during her time behind bars, she was afforded a unique opportunity.        

“I believe being in jail helped me think about where I wanted to go,” explained Dickinson. “I really feel like I had the chance to get on my knees and pray and connect with a higher power. I’m really grateful for the MCJRP [Multnomah County Justice Reinvestment Program] because their support and monitoring, when I got out.” 

Dickinson is one of 125 people enrolled in the Multnomah County Justice Reinvestment Program or MCJRP. A product of House Bill 3194 or 2013 legislation designed to reduce state spending on prisons and reinvest the savings into local counties and their respective community-based programs and services.  HB3194 modifies sentencing and reserves Oregon’s prison space for the most serious, violent criminals while dramatically cutting prison costs through investment in local public safety systems.

In Multnomah County, it means offenders like Dickinson, facing prison for offenses like drug and property crimes, would instead undergo a rigorous evaluation assessing their likelihood to re-offend and their treatment needs. They would then complete a 120-day customized, intensive supervision plan. Wrap-around services aimed at addressing the root cause of crime and reducing recidivism are also set up.    

When Dickinson was released from jail she was met by Multnomah County Justice Reinvestment parole and probation officers.

“The day that I was released from jail, MCJRP parole and probation officers were waiting for me downstairs. I didn’t get released until they got there. And eventually they took me to housing through Central City Concern. Today, I feel it was a blessing, if I had gotten out any earlier or released without them there, I might not be where I am today.”

Volunteers of America mentor and former Department of Community Justice client Thi Vu shares his story of recovery at the Milestone Ceremony.

“I actually made her give up her apartment where historically she had been dealing drugs and made her move into subsidy housing away from where she was living,” said David Main, MCJRP parole and probation officer.

Main and other supporters of the MCJRP program say Dickinson’s success is just the beginning of a program that’s making significant strides. For one, offenders are closely monitored in the community-- saving the state millions in projected prison costs. Offenders also receive alcohol and drug treatment, anger management, and other critical services tied to rehabilitation and future success. Social workers and mentors from organizations like Volunteers of America and Bridges to Change also take an active role in the effort. 

Supporters of the program and clients alike say it’s not easy. It’s a marathon rather than a sprint, nonetheless significant steps are being made towards change.  

The Department of Community Justice client Carey Markwell pumps his fist in recognition of his accomplishments during his first 120 days in the Multnomah County Justice Reinvestment Program.

“She has made a lot of strides,” said Main of Dickinson. “She had a lot of criminal thought processes to overcome.  She would resort to aggression, physicality and arguing because that’s what she used to dealing with. There were times when she would literally yell at me but as we’ve gone through this you can really see the change. We’re at a point where she’s really processing situations and thinking about the long-term instead of how its going to affect her immediately.”

“At first I didn’t understand the electronic monitoring device because I did my time in jail but its just to keep you safe, to make sure you’re not in the areas you’re suppose to be in.  It was easier to stay clean when I got out of jail because I had a support team that was around me to make sure I stayed in line,” said Dickinson. “I needed to learn to work on a new lifestyle with meetings, groups, support systems and relationship with my PPOs [parole and probation officers], counselors and regaining relationships with my family and community.”

Fast-forward 120 days on a quiet March weeknight, Dickinson and 11 other program participants gathered inside the Multnomah County board room for a “milestone” event. Surrounded by friends, family, PPOs, counselors and other supporters each received a certificate and coin for 120-days remaining crime free.  Before each award was handed out, heartfelt accounts were shared by the participants, PPOs and mentors.   

“Just like everyone sitting in these seats, I started in small jail cells,” said Thi Vu former addict turned mentor. “If you allow yourself to go all the way through and give it a little bit of faith, the counselors, the PPOs, we’re in this business to save lives. And it may not be yours, it may be your children or a loved one.”

Justice Reinvestment program graduate hugs a service provider during a March graduation ceremony.

The teamwork involved in MCJRP extends beyond the immediate services offered but collaboration among key community partners from Multnomah County Local Public Safety Coordinating Council (LPSCC), the District Attorney’s Office, Citizens Crime Commission, Metropolitan Public Defender Services, CODAPortland Police Bureau, Gresham Police, Fairview Police, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Community Justice, Oregon Judicial Department.

“MCJRP is allowing public safety partners to collaborate in a new, innovative way,” said Department of Community Justice director Scott Taylor. “The wraparound services and supervision being delivered is a promising way of doing business that is demonstrating considerable success.”

Once participants complete their 120 days, they are placed under a more traditional parole and/or probation program and treatment also continues.  

For Theresa Dickinson, 120 days has meant going above and beyond her program requirements. She still takes part in Narcotics Anonymous but also attends women’s retreats, spiritual seminars and volunteers at Mercy Corps. She has also reconnected with her family.  

The 51-year-old mother had tears in her eyes upon accepting her certificate at the milestone ceremony. 

“I’m just really thankful for this program and I’m thankful to MCJRP for trusting in me and believing me and giving me a chance. It was so hard, like David said, I was on supervision and I didn’t do anything to try. I didn’t have any determination to stay clean and I was in the stock program and they kicked me out.  Today, I have been clean since August 16th [2014].”