Giving felons a second chance clashes with the need to ensure safety, creating conflicts that are hard to resolve

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Margot doesn't hold back as she prays at Hillsboro's Sonrise Church Light My Way service — the first large church service in the country to welcome registered sex offenders.For many years, when a man would walk into the room, Margot would find a corner and hide out there. When she was 5, Margot, who asked that her last name not be used, was sexually molested by a family member.

On most Sundays 64 years later, Margot can be found attending the Light My Way service at Sonrise Church in Hillsboro — the nation's only regular service for registered sex offenders, attended primarily by ex-convicts and probationers who are bused from a Washington County corrections center. It is, in a way, her form of worship.

Sometimes one of the men at Light My Way asks for a hug and Margot — never a criminal herself — politely declines. She will hug the women. After a friend made her aware of the number of sex offenders living in their Forest Grove neighborhood, she wouldn't let her daughter walk to the library by herself.

"I have not read anywhere in the Bible where God said I want you to do all this stuff, and I want you to put your family at risk," she says.

It would be a mistake, Margot says, to mistake her compassion for fellow church-goers for a failure to recognize the dangers presented by those who have committed crimes.

"I believe that nothing is important but God, but I also know that we all have personal choice, and whether people choose to walk with God and let him change them is a personal choice," Margot says.

Margot's attitudes toward crime and rehabilitation have changed over the years. That may be rare for most people, but it isn't uncommon for victims of crime, experts say. While most of us may say we believe in rehabilitation — but hope for someone else to offer the ex-convict a job or apartment — victims often are forced to confront their attitudes head on.

Margot says in her 30s or 40s she would not have thought of the ex-convicts at Light My Way as victims themselves, as she does now. She had to work through her own fear and anger. And she would not be showing support for ex-cons unless she had a place like Sonrise Church that believes in offering felons, even sex offenders, a second chance, but does it without forgetting the need for security.

Those Sunday Light My Way services include hired security guards who sweep the church campus to make sure no Sunday School children are present before the services begin, and a dedicated guarded bathroom for Light My Way congregants. That's the model that our communities need to follow, according to Margot.

"Everybody deserves a second chance, but we as society also deserve to be protected," she says.

"Amen," says Light My Way Pastor Clifford Jones, an ex-convict himself.

"People don't believe in true redemption," he says. "We can say it, but what we say with our mouths doesn't come out in our actions or in our laws."

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - After 12 years in prison for assault and battery, Alan was desperate for a place to live, until he found the Abbey Apartments, one of the few buildings in Portland where ex-convicts and registered sex offenders are welcome.

Security trumps redemption

Mary Elledge isn't focused on redemption or rehabilitation. She just wants to feel safe at night, and she wants to go to bed knowing her grandchildren and great-grandchildren are safe as well. Elledge's 21-year-old son, Rob, was murdered in her home 31 years ago by a friend from a family with a number of felons.

"We knew he came from a bad family, but he always said that he hoped we would not judge him," Elledge says. "We wish we had."

Elledge and her husband have been to at least six parole hearings for the murderer, who received a 28-year sentence. She's convinced he is a sociopath with no remorse and no conscience. More important, she believes that if he is released he will hurt or kill again.

Elledge has come to believe there are truly evil people. She says she'd support more resources devoted to rehabilitation, but only if that goes hand in hand with keeping locked up the violent criminals who are likely to murder and rape again.

"All I do is deal with people whose loved ones were murdered," says Elledge, who leads the Clackamas County chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. "You have to be so careful. I think the first thing we need to consider is the protection of society."

Mary Zinkin has known victims who talked about wanting revenge and justice and others whose focus was on their need to forgive. The mistake, she says, is to assume people feel just one way or the other all their lives, says the founder of Portland's Center for Trauma Support Services.

"For victims, it's a process to heal from crime," Zinkin says. "I've spoken to women who lost children to a murderer; in the immediate aftermath they were angry and wanted the harshest sentence possible, who years later are working to abolish the death penalty."

Zinkin is a crime survivor herself. At 22 she was shot three times (along with three others) by a young man with a sawed-off shotgun at a convenience market. At the time she had been working at a community college helping parolees register for school, firmly believing in rehabilitation over punishment.

She later heard that the shooter was sent to a psychiatric hospital and may have committed more violent crimes on release, but she doesn't know for sure, and she's never spoken to him, despite years of hoping for the type of victim-offender conversation she now helps set up.

"I wanted to talk to him, and I wanted him to get whatever help he needed so he would never do that again," she says.

Many of the victims of drunken drivers want to look in the eyes of the men and women who hit them and ask if they still drink, Zinkin says, and that's why she founded her nonprofit center. A victim who learns their offender has repented and changed is more likely to favor compassion over vengeance.

"There is a desire to know that whatever happened won't happen again. There's a belief that if you have been personally accountable to me there's a better chance that it won't happen again," she says.

Zinkin says there's no easy answer to why so many people reject the idea of rehabilitation and focus on punishment. Her best guess? "It's because we can't accept that we ourselves would do such a thing," Zinkin says. "We project — that's a bad person, and I'm not a bad person."

The house of last resort

Seventeen years ago, Debbie Henderson started making calls to apartment managers around Portland, asking if they rented to ex-convicts. She wasn't a con herself, and wasn't looking out for a friend or family member.

But she had just become manager of the Abbey Apartments on Burnside Street. The Abbey was run down, full of junkies and prostitutes, Henderson says. She was putting together a business plan.

The brassy Henderson had no fear of ex-cons, no more fear than she has dealing with anybody else. "You're never going to know a person," she says.

Her calls led Henderson to the conclusion that almost nobody in Portland rented to ex-convicts. And this was years before vacant Portland apartments became as rare as front-row seats at a Blazers game.

"They were afraid," Henderson says of the apartment managers she called. "They basically said no. Their reasoning is, once a person is institutionalized, there's no coming back from it. My reasoning is, I don't believe it. And I have proof."

Henderson says she got rid of the junkies and prostitutes. Since then, for 17 years, the Abbey has been renting 55 studio apartments to ex-cons, many of them sex offenders. Rent is $720 a month, which includes utilities and cable. Some rooms have private bathrooms; some don't. At any given time about seven of 10 tenants are "on paper," she says, under the supervision of a probation officer. The other tenants tend to be young and directionless.

Henderson may be a fount of compassion and understanding, but she's nobody's fool. Sometimes the cons, as she calls them, aren't easy to deal with. But she's found that by being clear with her rules and consequences, they respond.

The rules? "Mind your own business, pay your rent, if you have a problem, come directly to me," Henderson ticks off one finger at a time.

"Cons know what responsibility is because in prison that's what they live by," she says. "The regular tenants give me more trouble than the cons do."

And the people at the Abbey, according to Henderson, know the hard truth. "If you can't make it here, you're not going to make it in another building, or society," she says.

Finding housing is one of the biggest obstacles facing felons once outside prison. It's doubly hard for registered sex offenders, who can't rent in buildings where there might be children around. That leaves low-end motel rooms as the primary option for cons Henderson can't accommodate. Or the streets.

The Abbey, with its dusty hallway and old-fashioned accordion gate elevator, is nobody's dream building and Henderson is no bleeding heart. But according to Portland police sex offender coordinator Bridget Sickon, the Abbey remains the largest apartment building in Portland that will rent to sex offenders.

The fact that sex offenders have few other options makes no sense, in Henderson's view. Relegating a large number of ex-convicts, especially sex offenders, to living on Portland's sidewalks doesn't make anybody safer, she says.

"How can you move and advance yourself in society if you can't even have a roof over your head?" Henderson asks.

Henderson says crime and violence are virtually unheard of in her building. Only once, years ago, was she ever victimized. A fourth-floor tenant attacked Henderson in her office, backing her against the wall and choking her before releasing his hands and running away. And even that incident didn't change her attitude toward her tenants.

"It wasn't because he was an ex-con," she says. "It was because he was mentally ill and off his meds."

But what happened next illustrates the regard in which the Abbey's tenants hold their manager and their building. According to Henderson, a police report was filed and the tenant was arrested and released from custody a few hours later. Then some of the Abbey's tenants saw him hanging out across the street from the building. A group of them walked over, took him up to his room, stood watch after telling him to pack his duffel bag with his belongings, and escorted him to the Old Town bus station.

As Henderson recalls, they told him he had to buy a bus ticket to somewhere. He chose Montana. "They stood there while he was getting on the bus and said, 'Don't come back to this town. It's for hurting Debbie,' " she says.

Judge changes his ways

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Washington County Judge Tom Kohl lost his daughter, Megan, to a murderer in 2006. Today he visits prisons around the country to learn what keeps ex-convicts from re-offending, and is working to institute rehabilitation programs in Oregon prisons.If supporting rehabilitation starts with a belief that people can change, count Tom Kohl among the believers. Kohl has a front-row seat every morning when he looks in the mirror.

Kohl, a senior Washington County judge, says his attitude toward criminals was pretty basic. "I was harsh," he says. "I believed the people committing crimes and doing drugs should go to jail and not be given a second chance."

In 2004, Kohl learned that his daughter, Megan, was a meth addict. He began to realize drugs are "nondiscriminatory," an understanding that made him less judgmental of defendants in his court. He started a drug court in Washington County.

In 2006, Megan was murdered. Kohl says he went through stages of grief and hopelessness, but "there wasn't any room for bitterness or anger."

Kohl credits the Christian faith he adopted around 2000 with providing the foundation that led to his personal transformation. But the events of his life also forced him to recognize some personal truths he'd failed to acknowledge. For much of his adult life, he says, he was a hell-raiser. As a young adult he'd done things that could have put him in jail. Later, his behavior contributed to two divorces. "I was the chief sinner of sinners," Kohl says.

Kohl arranged a prison visit with his daughter's killer, where the two men prayed together and Kohl told the man he had forgiven him. Kohl and his wife began hosting annual Christmas dinners at their home where the guests included prostitutes, drug dealers and thieves who had appeared in Kohl's court.

But there remained one more step in Kohl's road to redemption. Four years ago, he began visiting Angola prison in Louisiana, recognized for transforming from one of the nation's most violent prisons to one of its safest. There Kohl began to see a potential for rehabilitation that he'd never known existed. In fact, he recently formed a nonprofit that he hopes will be able to instill some of the Angola lessons into Oregon's prison system.

Kohl can't be mistaken for someone harboring a naive view of felons. It is hard to imagine anybody more entitled to a bitter "lock them up and throw away the key" attitude toward felons. And Kohl still believes that some criminals cannot be rehabilitated. But for most, he says, there is potential, and hope.

Maybe, Kohl says, more people will only begin to see that potential as he did, after having been touched by the trials of a loved one. Maybe not. But the road to redemption for felons, he is certain, has to begin with the rest of us.

"As a society we have to give people an opportunity," he says.

By Peter Korn
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