Background, needs of women in jail prompt search for effective programs

Elizabeth Balerio in her home in Clifton



What works for male criminal offenders doesn’t mean it will work for women offenders, officials in Mesa County’s community corrections system have come to realize.

But 30 years ago, officials of the Criminal Justice Services Department didn’t give that much thought, because there were so few women entering the system. As the population of women offenders has swelled, officials are trying to keep pace by offering alternative sentencing programs for women to address their specific needs.

“Most females have victim issues that not nearly as many men have to deal with,” said Dennis Berry, director of the Criminal Justice Services Department. “They may have those issues as well as substance abuse. Our treatment has to take into consideration the trauma they’ve been through. Many women have children, and we have to be mindful of that and provide gender-specific treatment.”

If you’re arrested and lucky enough not to get sentenced by a judge to jail or prison, you may be placed in the county’s community corrections program, which can be residential, nonresidential or work-release. In 2003, an average of 39 women a day were housed in the Mesa County Jail population. That number rose to an average of 63 women a day in 2006, but in 2008, the number of women offenders in jail dropped to 51 a day, according to the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department.

Clients pay fees for housing at Mesa County’s facilities and have to keep jobs while maintaining a long list of requirements, including getting treatment for drug abuse, paying off restitution, volunteering for community service and participating in any number of rehabilitative programs.

Some of the programs are designed around the knowledge that some women enter community corrections without ever having cooked a meal on a stove, followed a budget or created a resume. Other programs require women to hone their parenting skills, deal with anger issues and work on life skills.

Offenders often are required to follow strict budgeting requirements while in community corrections, but the result is often that clients have a sizable sum of money to start their new life upon being released.

Recidivism rates for inmates in community-corrections programs are much lower than people sent to prison, according to a 2006 study.

Of the state’s community corrections programs, 85 percent of offenders remained crime-free during the first year after being released, and 75 percent remained crime free at least two years after being released. Offenders released from prison and parole have a 50 percent rate of recidivism, according to the Criminal Justice Services Department.

LEARNED DISCIPLINE

Sierra Chacon speaks openly now about how community corrections changed her life. Many of the programs in which she was enrolled are the result of community correction’s increased attention to women’s services.

While serving her sentence, Chacon was required to attend classes at Colorado West Regional Mental Health, which she said probably was the most useful part of her recovery.

“I went into a smaller group, and we talked about addictions,” she said. “I had anxiety and depression. There were issues that I never thought I could open up to people, but I could in that small class. I was the kind of person who wouldn’t talk to anybody.”

The 22-year-old now works a full-time job, attends classes at IntelliTec and cares for her baby son.

Chacon, who had been using methamphetamine, turned herself in to authorities when she learned she was pregnant, knowing she wouldn’t be able to break from the drug culture on her own. She was sentenced to 18 months in community corrections and spent 90 days in Mesa County Jail while waiting for a bed to open at the residential facility.

Before community corrections, “I was not motivated at all,” Chacon said.

Though Chacon has a felony on her record, she’s optimistic about the future. She knows jail is a “place I never want to come back to,” but jumping through the hoops at community corrections wasn’t much easier.

“Community corrections taught me somewhat of a discipline,” she said. “They didn’t baby me at all.”


JAIL PROVIDED WAKE-UP CALL

It happened later in life for Elizabeth Balerio, 45, but community corrections has given her the tools to turn her life around.

She had been a bookkeeper for 25 years when she first tried methamphetamine after a friend said it could help her lose weight.

After getting hooked on the drug, she was arrested and charged with possession and intent to distribute, but relapsed after being sentenced to two years of probation. She spent six months in Mesa County Jail and then was sent to Colorado Springs for a 45-day, inpatient, drug-treatment program. Officials are in talks over how to offer that service here. It is available to men only in Mesa County.

Two years after being arrested on Christmas Eve 2007, Balerio is sober and can look back at her accomplishments.

She had never saved any money before, but she walked out of the program with $1,400 in an account.

Balerio completed her GED while in community corrections , paid restitution and met the numerous requirements, which she called “pretty intense.” She mostly misses small group outings to a dinner or gathering to make crafts with other women offenders, a practice that reinforces positive activities that likely aren’t common in many of the women offenders’ lives.

Her son was 6 months old when she was first arrested.

She was allowed to bring him in to tour the residential facility, a relatively new practice that officials allow on a limited basis.

The boy’s father is serving an 18-year prison sentence for a drug conviction.

“I didn’t want to be looking at my son behind glass,” she said. “I could not see my son having either of his parents around.”

Balerio calls her jail sentence the wake-up call she needed to get off drugs, and she is working to regain custody of her son, who lives with her parents.

She’d like to go to medical school and thinks she could be a good counselor to help others overcome addictions. The experience, she said, taught her the importance of setting boundaries. And women, who tend to be more trusting than men, are urged to break ties with other felons.

“I see people hanging out, and I’m cordial, but I’m not inviting them to come in,” she said. “The people I do hang out with are sober. I’m not going back to that life.”

‘IMMATURE PUNK’ NOW HAS STRUCTURE

It’s the small things in life, like having her own mailbox and walking down the sidewalk outside
of her home, that make 26-year-old Jessica (last name withheld) happy now after completing a six-year, community-corrections sentence.

She was on probation for another drug violation when she was caught at a party where police found drugs. Jessica was charged with attempt to distribute drugs and a weapon violation.

After spending 11 months in jail, she entered community corrections and was told by others in the program she was an “immature punk.” Looking back, she agrees.

But to get from there to the person who now works two jobs and makes healthy life choices required a lot of structure, she said.

During the hardest days in the program, Jessica worked a full-time and a part-time job, managed to get to required classes around town while riding a bike, and often did not return to the facility until 2 a.m.

Jessica still works two jobs and was able to save thousands of dollars in community corrections, which she hopes one day to put toward buying a home. Restrictions on seeing her family, which is scattered in Delta and Crawford, were in some ways more difficult than the program’s requirements.

Being on the outside means she can attend a party for her grandfather, who turns 96 this year.

“I’m not going to take this one for granted,” Jessica said.


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