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Rehab, not jail, shows promise in lowering recidivism

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In Knox County, the threat of incarceration is met with a shrug.

Substance abuse, with methamphetamine being the drug of choice, is putting many behind bars again and again. For some, drug and alcohol abuse begins as young as 8 years old and being arrested is just part of the routine.

“Sometimes (being imprisoned) does give a wake up call,” said Rev. Peter Haskins, “but to a lot of the folks it’s a real acceptable thing to go to jail.”

To help combat the drug problem, Haskins, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, started the Life After Meth program in May 2005. Two years later, LAM partnered with the Knox County jail to bring the program to the facility.

The community-model initiative includes parenting classes, drug treatment, employment classes and Bible study. Haskins said the program has helped participants find jobs, provided support after they are released and is currently preparing to add transitional housing.

“It’s a good way to teach,” Haskins said of putting LAM in the jail. “It is a great setting. It has worked beautifully.”

The LAM program in Knox County is one example of taking a different approach to the problem of crime. Communities around the state are employing alternative courts and treatment programs to address the root cause of why some individuals commit felonies and misdemeanors. In turn, these efforts are credited with reducing the rate of recidivism.

The rewrite of Indiana’s criminal code under House Bill 1006 attempts to boost these alternative programs by calling for intensive probation, rather than lengthy incarceration, for low-level offenders.

Money is among the primary motivators for the shift. At the current rate of incarceration, the Indiana Department of Correction expects its offender population to grow from the current 27,647 to 29,000 by 2020, according to a fiscal report by the Legislative Services Agency. At that point, the department will likely have to request funds to build a new prison.

Instituting the proposed changes in the criminal code bill could delay that population growth possibly into the 2030s. Along with not having to budget for the cost of building a new prison, the state would save on operating costs. The LSA report noted the Miami Correctional Facility has an operating budget of $32 million for fiscal year 2013.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the criminal code is not being revamped solely because of the fiscal element. The focus is to have the punishment equitably match the crime.

“But the reality is, if we don’t make that adjustment, we’ll be building another half-billion dollar prison in Indiana in the immediate future,” he said.

At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law, advocates of alternative programs emphasized these different approaches are helping certain offenders change their behaviors and stop the cycle of repeated incarcerations. In the long-term, diverting people from criminal activities and keeping them out of jail and prison saves the state money.

However in the short-term, these programs cost money.

As it was introduced, HB 1006 called for the establishment of a probation improvement fund with a state appropriation of $1.9 million and funds from other sources. That funding was removed in the House.

Testifying before the Senate Committee, Don Travis, president of the Probation Officers’ Professional Association of Indiana, strongly encouraged the committee to re-insert the funding for evidence-based programs that can cut crime.

“If this bill goes into effect without the proper community resources, this bill will not have the effect that is anticipated,” he told the committee members. “Our recidivism rates will continue to grow if we don’t have the resources or the funding to implement the way the bill is currently being structured.”

Changing behavior

Monroe County’s drug court, presided over by Circuit Judge Mary Ellen Diekhoff, is an example of the type of success alternative programs can have. The drug court has posted a 47 percent reduction in recidivism and an 87 percent graduation rate.

Within a very structured program, the drug court combines a high level of accountability with a high level of treatment. Defendants are placed under intense supervision, appearing in court one or two times a week and meeting regularly with their probation officers or case managers.

In addition, they are sanctioned swiftly for any missteps with punishments ranging from community service to immediate remand into jail. They are also given treatment that focuses on changing their thinking so they can modify their behaviors.

“These kinds of programs are working and making a difference,” said Monroe Circuit Judge Teresa Harper. “People become more accountable, and they change the way they actually think. Their responses are not the same.”

The alternatives to incarceration that work best, Travis said, are those that change behavior. Not addressing the underlying cause will just land the defendants back in jail when they are released from supervision.

Cognitive restructuring, on the other hand, gets defendants to think about the reasons why they engaged in criminal activity. When they become aware of their impulses and of the drivers behind their behaviors, they can then change.

“There are pockets of programs occurring all over the state,” Travis said. “If we had more resources we would be able to do those things across the entire state.”

The programs do not work for every defendant. But, both Travis and Harper said, when individuals are ready to overcome their addictions or change their behaviors and the programs to help are not available, these people will slip even further.

Necessary spending

Resources to provide services have more of an impact when they are directed to certain offenders. Travis made a distinction between defendants who commit misdemeanors or D felonies and defendants who are unlikely to break the law again. Specifically, not all low-level offenders are low-risk offenders, he noted.

Research shows that giving more programs and services to low-risk offenders increases the likelihood they will re-offend. This group of people has shown a tendency toward self-correction. The better option is to put the resources toward moderate- and high-risk offenders.

Monroe County partially funds its drug court with the fees paid by the defendants. Those fees do not cover all the programs and services, but Harper emphasized “spending is absolutely necessary” for long-term gain.

“Yes, it is more expensive to run a drug court, but in the end it is saving the county because (the offenders) don’t come back” into the system, she said.

When Daviess County built a new jail, Sheriff Jerry Harbstreit told the architects to put classrooms near the inmate living quarters. The space is used for the Restructure Addiction with Recovery and Education (RARE) faith-based program which is aimed at transforming offenders into productive, law-abiding citizens.

Like LAM in neighboring Knox County, the RARE program teaches anger management, parenting skills and vocational skills. The LAM and RARE programs have been credited with reducing inmate populations in the counties’ jails, reducing recidivism and curbing inmate fights.

Harbstreit told the story of a former inmate whose mother introduced the young man to meth. Faced with spending years behind bars, the man entered the RARE program and was able to change his life, becoming a certified welder at a local company and eventually being promoted to supervisor and transferred to Iowa. He has since married and is still living and working in the Hawkeye State.

“If anything ever worked,” Harbstreit said of RARE, “this is really working.” •

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