County wants program for offenders

A state prison program has helped dozens of men and women get help with addiction issues and return to the community sooner.

Local officials have been monitoring the numbers, and have seen the success. Of 42 people who successfully completed the program between 2013 and 2014, only one has been returned to court and could be sent back to prison, Prosecutor Brad Cooper said.

But, with changes in state law of how criminal offenses are classified and who can be sent to prison, fewer people are eligible for the program — especially the ones who can benefit from it the most, Cooper said.

So now, the county wants to set up its own program.

The county is applying for a state grant to help pay for the program and would like to have it fully operating by 2017 when they hope a new community corrections facility will be built.

That new facility is being designed now, but officials know they want it to include more space for offenders on the county’s work release program and more space for classes and programs to help offenders return to society.

The goal is to combat the county’s rates of recidivism — where offenders are arrested again after being released from prison, jail or another local program.

A 2012 study showed that of the Johnson County inmates released from prison in 2009, about a third committed another crime or violated their program and were sent back to prison.

“We see them back in again and again, and it is a problem in our county,” Johnson County Superior Court 2 Judge Cynthia Emkes said.

And that is especially important as more offenders will be required to serve their sentences locally under changes in the state’s requirements for sentencing. In the past, the county has often sent repeat offenders who violate their probation terms back to prison, but in most cases, that is no longer allowed under the new laws.

“We have to do whatever we can do to change the thought process,” Emkes said.

Local officials said a key issue is drug use.

That’s why they said they hope to address the underlying issue of drug addiction, with the hope of helping people break the lifestyle, Cooper said.

“So that when they get out, they aren’t back on the meth pipe or a needle,” he said.

Under the state’s program, offenders go through therapeutic programs, including for addiction and mental health issues. If they complete the program successfully, they can go back to the county where their crime was committed and ask for their sentence to be reduced.

But a person must be serving at least three years in prison to be eligible for the program.

Under changes in state law, offenders who have committed the lowest level felony, such as drug possession, who would benefit from the program most could not receive that long of a sentence, Cooper said.

That’s the main reason why the county wants to start its own program, he said.

No other county has replicated the state’s program, Emkes said.

“The therapeutic-based programs, I don’t know what makes them work, but they work,” she said.

Judges, the probation department and the prosecutor’s office have been working together on a grant that would help pay for a local program, Emkes said. This year, the total grant statewide is $5 million, but it will increase to $20 million next year.

Even if the county isn’t awarded the grant, the work that has been done to apply for it has been important since it has shown different departments new ways they can work together and not duplicate services, she said.

But she hopes the county will be awarded the grant, and potentially others, including one to help treat mental health issues, she said.

In the coming months, local officials will continue working to build the local programs and classes that would be offered at the new community corrections center.

They also are discussing how they will measure their success. They need goals for how much they can expect to decrease the number of offenders who commit another crime, and what systems they will need in place to measure that.

“It is a big job, but there is no other way to know if it works or not,” Emkes said.

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Annie Goeller is managing editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at or 317-736-2718.