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Programs to Help Repeat Offenders

They are an established feature of Orange County's crime and punishment landscape -- a feature that police, attorneys and judges say is all too familiar and difficult to address.

Repeat offenders and their crimes burden police and courts and have spurred authorities to explore new punishment and rehabilitation options.

"Yes, we do arrest the same people over and over again, and the courts let them loose, and we arrest them again," said Capt. John Butler of the Carrboro Police Department. "It's just the way it is."

The challenge posed to the criminal justice system by repeat offenders starts with their numbers, said Jim Woodall, Orange County assistant district attorney.

"If you consider a repeat offender someone coming back into the court system for at least a second time, I would imagine 40 or 45 percent, maybe even 50 percent of the people we see are repeat offenders," he said.

Behind bars, the ratio is even higher.

Of 172 misdemeanants and felons who were convicted in Orange County since October 1994 and who exited North Carolina prisons in the year prior to March 1, 2001, more than 80 percent are repeat offenders.

In Durham County, the figure is just under 85 percent.

A Familiar Story

After almost four years of patrolling the west Chapel Hill community of Northside, Officer Alan Philley of the Chapel Hill Police Department said he saw little change in repeaters' behavior.

"For most of them, it's the same thing over and over. If they break into cars, they break into cars. If they break into residences, they break into residences."

In addition to residential and car break-ins, repeat offenders are likely to be arrested for shoplifting, larceny, forgery, credit card fraud or dealing drugs, Philley said.

A case in point is that of Glenton Horton, 35, of Chapel Hill. Horton went to prison in February 1997 on charges of breaking and entering and larceny.

He was released four months later.

Since that time, he has been arrested by Chapel Hill police more than 15 times on charges including second-degree trespass, misdemeanor larceny and -- most recently -- possession of drug paraphernalia.

Horton's most recent charge was dismissed by the district attorney.

Horton was one of six people identified by Chapel Hill police as sample repeat offenders.

The six offenders are not Chapel Hill's worst repeaters. "They're just a subset," said police spokeswoman Jane Cousins.

A Deeply-Rooted Problem

Both Woodall and Philley said most repeat offender crime can be traced to substance abuse. "There are some people who are just plain mean, but I would guess if you took drugs and alcohol out of the equation, you would eliminate 75 percent of the crime," Woodall said.

He said in addition to substance abuse, other factors such as mental illness contribute to the behavior of some repeat offenders.

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Philley said he believed many repeat offenders were caught in a cycle of bad behavior. "For a lot of these repeat offenders, it's what they've done. It may be what they learned growing up, what they've been around their entire lives," he said. "Once they've committed these crimes one, two, three times, they have a felony on their record, and it would probably hamper their getting a job."

A Challenge to the Courts

The cycle of criminal behavior identified by Philley and Woodall strains the court system.

Three Orange County judges attempted to address problems associated with repeat offenders last year when they signed a letter to the N.C. General Assembly requesting tougher sentencing guidelines for individuals convicted of more than 10 misdemeanor crimes.

"The response of the Sentencing Commission was an expression of concern as to how this increased prison population would be housed," said Orange County District Court Judge Charles Anderson, one of the letter's signatories.

Anderson said concerns about prison overpopulation were just one of the ways in which resource allocation impacted the criminal justice system's ability to deal with repeat offenders.

"It's a resource issue in terms of the number of law enforcement officers, court personnel, district attorneys and judges your county or state wants to pay for," he said.

But some observers believe rehabilitation, not more punishment options, is the best solution.

The Possibility of Rehabilitation

In an effort to unburden the courts and corrections systems and help offenders who might benefit from treatment, Orange County maintains one court that differs from the normal trial court and has another planned.

In community resource court, the district attorney's office could defer prosecution of individuals whose crimes stem from mental illness or substance abuse in exchange for an agreement by the offender to undergo treatment that might include counseling or drug and alcohol screening.

Treatment costs are paid either by private insurance, Medicaid or the individual, who is charged on a sliding scale based on income, said D.C. Rhyne, a case manager with the Orange-Person-Chatham Foundation for Mental Health.

If the offender sticks to the program, charges could be dismissed.

Anthony M. Purefoy, 39, is a repeat offender who was sent to community resource court.

Purefoy went to prison in July 1999 on two charges of breaking and entering.

He left Orange County Correctional Institute less than three months later.

In February 2001, Purefoy, whose record includes more than 20 arrests on both misdemeanor and felony charges, was arrested again on a charge of misdemeanor breaking and entering.

In March, Purefoy met Judge Patricia DeVine in the community court.

DeVine warned him that he must meet the court's requirement that he undergo drug and alcohol screening and return to court in April, or he would end up back behind bars.

Purefoy attended his April court date and is scheduled for another appearance on May 9. The charges against him eventually could be dismissed.

In addition to community resource court, the county also has planned a pilot program to address the link between criminal behavior and substance abuse, said Timothy Cole, an assistant public defender in Orange County.

Cole said the court, known as drug court, was slated to become active later this year.

Although some observers question the long-term effectiveness of special court programs, others say they are a crucial element of the criminal justice system.

"Prison is a lot of things, but it's not rehabilitation," said Glen Veit, a Hillsborough-based attorney who sometimes represents offenders in community resource court.

He said questions of the long-term effectiveness of treatment-oriented courts should not deter the county from offering them.

"It's not just a good thing to do -- it's the only thing that makes any sense."

The City Editor can be reached

at citydesk@unc.edu.

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