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An alternative to jail targets nonviolent county offenders

  • Garrett Tupman, of Concord, jokes with his son, Cameron, 4, who was supposed to be hiding while playing with his brother, Brayden, 2, after they arrived home from daycare one evening. After involvement with drugs, losing his job, being arrested and failing to meet probation requirements, he was placed in a 14-month program called SOAR. After completing the program in January, Tupman has an apartment and has returned to his job.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Garrett Tupman, of Concord, jokes with his son, Cameron, 4, who was supposed to be hiding while playing with his brother, Brayden, 2, after they arrived home from daycare one evening. After involvement with drugs, losing his job, being arrested and failing to meet probation requirements, he was placed in a 14-month program called SOAR. After completing the program in January, Tupman has an apartment and has returned to his job.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Garrett Tupman, of Concord, tickles his son, Brayden, 2, at their home one evening before going grocery shopping. After involvement with drugs, losing his job, being arrested and failing to meet probation requirements, he was placed in a 14-month program called SOAR. After completing the program in January, Tupman has an apartment and has returned to his job.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Garrett Tupman, of Concord, tickles his son, Brayden, 2, at their home one evening before going grocery shopping. After involvement with drugs, losing his job, being arrested and failing to meet probation requirements, he was placed in a 14-month program called SOAR. After completing the program in January, Tupman has an apartment and has returned to his job.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Garrett Tupman, of Concord, jokes with his son, Cameron, 4, who was supposed to be hiding while playing with his brother, Brayden, 2, after they arrived home from daycare one evening. After involvement with drugs, losing his job, being arrested and failing to meet probation requirements, he was placed in a 14-month program called SOAR. After completing the program in January, Tupman has an apartment and has returned to his job.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Garrett Tupman, of Concord, tickles his son, Brayden, 2, at their home one evening before going grocery shopping. After involvement with drugs, losing his job, being arrested and failing to meet probation requirements, he was placed in a 14-month program called SOAR. After completing the program in January, Tupman has an apartment and has returned to his job.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

For nearly a decade, Garrett Tupman seemed destined for one of two ends: prison or an early death.

The Concord native discovered heroin 10 years ago, at age 16. By 2011, he said, addiction had overtaken his life. He quit a well-paying job at Market Basket, began dealing marijuana to support his habit, was arrested and placed on probation, lost his apartment, lost his car and license.

And then he was stabbed, twice – a drug deal gone bad, he said.

But in 2012, Tupman’s fate unexpectedly changed. He failed a routine drug test – a requirement of his probation – and was sentenced to 14 months in an intensive re-entry program run by staff at the Merrimack County jail.

“They pretty much helped me turn my life around,” Tupman said.

The program, called SOAR, is an alternative to jail for nonviolent offenders. Participants live in the community for a year under strict conditions and close surveillance. They attend weekly group classes and one-on-one counseling sessions, volunteer in the community, search for jobs and submit regularly to random drug tests and home checks. Some wear ankle bracelets in their first months.

As jails and prisons in the state struggle with overcrowding and tight budgets, officials like SOAR Director Lori Seog see a growing need for creative, affordable alternatives, especially ones that target young and new offenders.

“Kids don’t grow up wanting to go to jail,” Seog said. “We try to get them back on a track where that criminal lifestyle is not the one they’re living.”

SOAR is among the several local models that have gained traction in recent years. The county attorney’s office now runs drug treatment and adult and juvenile diversion programs. Concord’s district court has a program for drug offenders. The jail helps oversee a program for criminals with mental illness.

Growing enrollment

SOAR was created in 2009, and Seog says it has been transformed in the past year. Coursework now heavily targets proven criminal factors, such as substance abuse and cognitive thinking, rather than a mix of general influences. Gone are traditional practices that stress uniformity and swift discipline.

“We ask a lot of ‘why,’ ” Seog said. “Why did you relapse? Why are you being resistant to community service?”

In the past year alone, enrollment in SOAR has jumped fivefold, from three to 15. The county spends $114 less per day to monitor an offender in the community than in jail, and it’s increasingly seen as an effective way to reform offenders.

“Most of the folks who have come through SOAR will tell you it would have been a lot easier just to do the time,” Seog said.

Tupman is Exhibit A. He completed the program in January, but getting there was not easy, especially in the beginning. Seog and her staff were “always on my a--,” he said. Tupman got his old job back and began volunteering on weekends, but he relapsed four months in with alcohol, he said. Instead of kicking him out, Seog let him stay, with a new condition of breathalyzer tests twice a day.

Holding out hope

Relapses are not uncommon among participants. Eric Nicolay, a 37-year-old heroin addict in the Concord area, said he has failed two drug tests since entering the program in August. But he said it has been months since his last slip up, and that, on a whole, he is making progress. He has a job and an apartment, spends weekends with his two daughters and meets regularly with the program’s drug and alcohol counselor, Chris Boswell. Nicolay’s new addiction, he said, is the gym.

Seog said the program is meant to equip offenders – nearly all of whom have drug addictions – with the skills and motivation to manage their own recoveries.

“It’s always a delicate balance for us as far as how far do you let someone stumble and pick themselves back up before we (the jail) intervene,” she said.

“If somebody relapses, it’s like, ‘Okay, how do you work your relapse in the community?’ ” she said. “As long as they’re safe and the people around them are safe.”

Nicolay said he is optimistic about staying clean once the program ends, presumably this summer. “Because it’s not the program that’s keeping me sober,” he said. “At first it was the incentive of not going back to jail. Now I just want to do it for me, because my life has gotten so much better.”

Facing the obstacles

The system is not perfect, Seog acknowledged. She said four people have been kicked out in the past few years, either for program violations or new offenses altogether. But Boswell noted that 98 percent of the jail’s population is released at some point anyway.

“It’s only a matter of time before they’re free and clear,” he said. “At least under these circumstances we have afforded a gradual process of re-entry, hopefully giving them skills to not reoffend.”

Last month, Tupman celebrated one year of sobriety, the longest he has gone in 10 years, he said. He has a job he is proud of, has joined a community recovery group and is spending more time with his two young children. There are undoubtedly obstacles ahead, Tupman admitted, but those don’t erase how far he has already come.

“I look back at it now,” he said, “and it’s like, ‘Whoa. What was I thinking?’ ”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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