Number of halfway house walkaways increasing

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by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and photojournalist DEREK RASOR

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on February 24, 2014 at 7:32 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 25 at 9:21 AM

AUSTIN -- Foot traffic stays steady inside the Jordania convenience store, just a block away from Sixth Street in downtown Austin.

In July 2012, one of its customers, Omien Kincheon, tried to use a fake $10 bill. Police charged him with forgery and drug possession. It happened just a week after Kincheon walked away from the Austin Transitional Center, a halfway house where parolees serve the remainder of their sentences out of prison.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice allows parolees to stay in halfway houses if they have nowhere to go after they’re released early from prison.

According to the TDCJ, Kincheon was serving time for cocaine possession. Authorities have now caught him walking away four times.

Repeat walkaways are a concern for Ghassan Alomari and his Jordania store.

"I wish they could handle that and fix that," Alomari said.

While parolees can only leave for pre-approved appointments like job interviews and doctor visits, the KVUE Defenders uncovered a dramatic increase of parolees walking away from the facility.

From 2009 to 2012, walkaways from this Austin’s halfway house jumped from 90 to nearly 400. That’s a 328 percent increase. Warrants are issued for walkaways, fighting in the facility, drug use, disruptive behavior, staff assault and late returns to the facility.

Bryan Collier is TDCJ’s deputy director. He says the increase in walkaways coincides with the increase in parolees released to halfway house facilities.

“We have placed more offenders into halfway houses across the state in the last five years than previous [years]," said Collier.

While most walkaways get caught or return on their own, 24 parolees walked away from Austin’s facility and have not been caught. They include a man who served time for attempted arson and another one convicted of aggravated assault.

Anthony Ferrell walked away from a halfway house in Houston in 2010. A month after he walked away, he shot and killed Sam Irick at this Houston gas station. Irick, 24, was trying to prevent Ferrell from stealing a woman’s purse.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) says the increase is a concern.

“It tells me we have an issue that needs to be addressed," Schwertner said.

Schwertner sits on the state’s criminal justice committee. After seeing results of this KVUE Defenders investigation, he’s now pledging to look into the problem.

"Whether it’s the type of individuals we put into halfway houses or how the halfway houses are administered, we’re going to be looking at both of those this next session," Schwertner said.

Collier says he understands the senator’s concerns.

"Ideally, you would like for every offender to come out of prison not ever return, not ever commit another crime, but with that population, there’s some offenders who continue to make bad decisions," Collier said.

TDCJ pays the Austin Transitional Center about $38 per day per parolee.

The Austin Transitional Center is owned by Avalon Correctional Services. Its president, Brian Costello, responded to the Defenders in an email, writing, "the increase in warrants coincides with our increase in contract size." The facility now holds about 400 beds.

Costello also said that “warrants are issued for a wide variety of issues including, fighting in the facility, drug use, disruptive behavior, staff assault, late returns to the facility, etc. A walkaway is indeed serious but it is just one of many reasons for having a warrant issued.”

Costello said the residents aren't locked up during their stay.

"The idea is to assist them with finding a job and saving some money in order to be able to develop a workable home plan and move out into the community. If they fail for one reason or another while they are with us, their parole is often revoked, a warrant is issued and they return to TDCJ custody," he said.

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