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Getting inmates back on track

Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti at the conference held in Randolph to talk about effective ways for inmates to return to society.David Weber/Courtesy of David Weber

Sean O’Malley struggled with a heroin addiction for 25 years before getting sober in September 2012. During that time, he estimates that he was incarcerated as many as 10 times and spent a total of 10 years in prison.

“So many times I came out wanting to do the right thing, but there were no resources for me,” he said. “A lot of addicts have no place to turn when they get out.”

O’Malley, who grew up in Dorchester and now lives in Quincy, insists that much of the credit for his recovery belongs to an inmate reentry program started by the Norfolk County Sheriff’s Office. Inmate reentry programs are designed to provide support for incarcerated individuals by linking them with the social service agencies that will help them make a successful transition back into their communities after they are released from prison.

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In August 2012, O’Malley applied to the Quincy drug court, a specialty court set up within Quincy District Court where defendants with substance abuse problems are closely supervised and are required to participate in support groups and treatment programs as an alternative to jail. The drug court sent O’Malley to the North Cottage Program, a residential facility for substance abuse treatment in Norton that gave him the structure and support he needed to recover.

“I was just going to go through the programs again, get drugs, and go back to jail,” O’Malley said. “When I started going to the meetings, I said I’d give this a chance. I got a new set of eyes. It let me know there’s another way of life out there.”

Inmate reentry programs were the primary focus at a recent summit in Randolph hosted by the Norfolk County Sheriff’s Office. Government officials, religious leaders, educators, and social services representatives from across the region discussed ways to create safer communities and help former inmates reenter society as productive citizens.

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“This really is a public safety issue,” said Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti. “At the end of the day, it’s about keeping these guys off the streets and keeping our streets safe.”

At the top of the agenda was the country’s staggering recidivism rate among convicts and how best to lower it. A Bureau of Justice Statistics study released earlier this year tracked about 400,000 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005. The study found that about three-quarters of those prisoners were arrested again within five years.

Sheriffs “know that punishment alone is insufficient as a system response to criminal behavior, because the consequences of incarceration are suffered by more than just the offender without effective reentry programs,” said state Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral. “Without effective reentry programs, incarceration alone all but guarantees that there is a lasting negative generational impact and negative community impact.”

The Norfolk County Sheriff’s Office has been a trailblazer in this regard, Cabral said. Its inmate reentry program received $335,000 in federal grant funding in both 2010 and 2011 from the Second Chance Act. The program seeks to identify repeat offenders and link them with social service programs like North Cottage. It provides treatment and education in areas like anger management, substance abuse, and domestic violence.

By April 2015, Bellotti hopes to have hard numbers to back up his office’s success stories. The Norfolk County Sheriff’s Office has partnered with Northeastern University to conduct a study on two groups of inmates who were incarcerated in 2011 and 2013, respectively. The study aims to track these inmates’ progress after release and draw comparisons between those who have participated in inmate reentry programs and those who have not.

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At the summit, Bellotti emphasized the importance of coordination and collaboration among the various parties with a stake in reentry, noting that the problems associated with recidivism have no geographical barriers.

“All of us are no longer working in our silos,” he said. “The challenge and purpose of today is networking and training. It’s really about those discussions and those relationships.”

Although the summit was the first of its kind in Norfolk County, Bellotti said the topics discussed were business as usual for most of the participants; the summit simply provided an opportunity to bring them all under one roof.

“These folks have been working with these issues for the past several years,” he said. “The things we’re talking about today are the things they do every day at work.”

O’Malley attended the summit as a panelist, leading a workshop on substance abuse and recovery. Participating in a 12-step program has given him the structure he needed, he said. In addition to taking care of his 9-month-old son, O’Malley provides advice and assistance to fellow addicts.

“I can walk in a courthouse through the front door and know that I won’t be going out the back,” he said. “The reentry program gave me the resources I needed. But it’s up to the individual to choose that change.”

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William Holt can be reached at william.holt@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wb_holt.