The story of Southwest Transitions offers a view into an important, but little recognized part of the criminal-justice system. And it is an aspect of the system that clearly needs more attention.

As the Herald reported Saturday, the halfway house for men on probation or parole has established a “delicate harmony” with its Animas Valley neighbors. Nearby residents had expressed concern eight months ago when the old motel just south of Trimble Lane was transformed into a transitional-housing facility. But Southwest Transitions does not accept sex offenders or men convicted of violent crimes, and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has said fears of increased crime have proven baseless. The office has received no calls about the facility.

Southwest Transitions is a Christian-based nonprofit, not a community-corrections program. Staying there can be, but is not always, one of the conditions for parole or probation. Primarily, it offers a place to stay and help finding work for men who have exhausted any alternatives and may otherwise be homeless.

What else it offers is a visible reminder of an often-ignored fact. As Tim Hand, director of the Colorado Department of Corrections told the Herald, “Our communities have to start to take responsibility to some extent for the reality that 97 percent of the (incarcerated) population is going to come out of prison (into Colorado.)”

And when they do, their future – and the lives of anyone around them – could be heavily influenced by what they take from their time behind bars and how well they are reintroduced to society. It is a simple truth too often ignored by advocates for harsher penalties and laws. Longer sentences delay the day a convict is back among us, but do not prevent it. And whenever that day comes, the question is: Then what?

It is the part of the system not shown on cop shows or courtroom dramas, but it is an increasingly important one. The Department of Justice says that as of the end of 2011, there were more than 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons nationwide.

More to the point, in 2011, more than 688,000 prisoners were released. And it is not enough for them to have learned their lesson. For as much as most do not want to return to prison, they have to learn how to function in society.

Many lack the basic infrastructure of life – family, friends, a home, a job. A program such as Southwest Transitions (or the more tightly structured Hilltop House) can help with that. And by doing so, it can help someone who perhaps had serious problems become a welcome and contributing member of society.

Nonetheless, as Hand told the Herald, “We don’t have enough halfway-house beds, and we don’t have enough resources available to provide for all their needs.”

As a society, we might want to take a look at that. Helping parolees re-enter the world has to be cheaper than incarceration. And a taxpayer beats a prisoner any day.

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