Reentering Poverty: Life After Prison

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Criminal offenders face consequences from their actions that extend farther than prison terms and community service.

Officials throughout the justice system are hoping to find solutions to both recidivism and the cycle of poverty that often brings individuals back into the system.

Through current programs such as the Reentry Program which is run through the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services and programs through the Athens County Prosecutor's Office, several agencies are setting goals to help those that are attempting to escape recurring court sentences.

The 176 people currently in the Reentry Program work with a representative to focus on their needs as they prepare for the end of their sentences or have previous records but need more assistance.

"These folks are already facing a lot of barriers coming out of prison," said Arian Smedley, community relations coordinator for Job and Family Services. "With the reentry program, we're able to help them get their license back, look for jobs and other important parts of getting them to become part of the community again."

One of the problems former offenders encounter is something Smedley says the task force is currently unable to help with: court fees and restitution.

"We don't have a funding system for that and the idea of imposing fines after (offenders) come out just makes it that much more difficult for them," Smedley said.

Payment plans are now possible through the Athens County Clerk of Courts, but for some considered indigent within the courts system, even payment plans might not work. In 2010, Athens County collected $400,000 in court fees from defendants, according to Smedley.

"Some of that was certainly on the backs of the poor," Smedley said.

The court also asks that anyone represented by the public defender's office pay a $25 fee for the service. But officials said for those that have low income — also called "indigent" in the court system — that fee could be changed or waived.

The Ohio Supreme Court addressed the issue this year by telling judges not to immediately impose prison sentences to offenders who couldn't or wouldn't pay fines. In order for an offender to be jailed, an "economic ability-to-pay hearing" is required after the trial court has decided jail time is necessary, according to documents by the supreme court.

Ohio law also allows courts to convert fines into community service if an offender can't pay or work out a payment plan, according to the supreme court.

The task force wants the priority for reentry participants to be finding a job to support themselves and their families, while the second priority should be restitution to victims, something that can only happen if the individuals have income coming to them.

For many offenders, drug treatment should also be part of the strategy for keeping them out of the system, said Herman Carson, director of the Athens branch of the Ohio Public Defender's Office.

With drug-addicted offenders, what money they may have is likely spent trying to feed the addiction, Carson said. Not much is left to spend on food, utilities, housing or other essentials. Adding restitution or court costs can make it very difficult for those trying to get out of the court system to improve their lives.

"It's like they're on a treadmill and they can't move forward," Carson said. "A job that will pay you and raise you out of poverty is hard to get, and when they have to report that they have a felony conviction, it's even harder. Then you have idle hands, which can fuel the addiction even more."

With new programs for daytime treatment at Health Recovery Services, one of the few treatment facilities in the region, now being funded and transportation that can be paid for through Medicaid, some options are becoming available to those needing treatment but lacking the means.

Part of the funding coming to Health Recovery Services is through the Athens County Prosecutor's Office's new "Fresh Start" program. The program was set up alongside the Athens County Empowerment Program, also called the diversion program. Both are ways that first-time and low-level offenders get the chance to avoid long prison stays while also addressing issues they might have underlying the criminal offense for which they were convicted.

"One of the requirements for (the diversion program) is finding and maintaining employment and we're trying to find other ways to address the problems that come along with crime," said Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn.

The prosecutor's office and the Reentry Task Force have been working closely, Blackburn said, to help with job searches and also assist individuals who need more education, such as high school diplomas or General Education Development (GED) qualifications.

Blackburn, too, emphasized the benefits addiction treatment could have for recidivism rates.

"If we can stop the cycle of drugs, we can treat the underlying issue, which for some is a loss of hope," Blackburn said. "If people have no hope, they are going to continue committing crimes."

The Common Pleas Court, specifically Judge George McCarthy is currently looking at addressing the problem with a direct approach: a drug court.

While the process is long and involves certification by the Ohio Supreme Court, McCarthy said he believed it would be a worthwhile endeavor with the "epidemic" drug problem Athens County has. He has also spoken with local treatment providers and other members of the legal community and said he has received a lot of support.

"It's definitely something worth working for, we need all the help we can get with this problem, and more importantly (the offenders) need the help," McCarthy said.