STAR has space, but no funding

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 8, 2003

FRANKLIN FURNACE -- Twenty-three-year-old Ironton resident Michael Eric Bruce believes if he weren't sent to the STAR Community Justice Center, he would be dead now.

The former marijuana user and drug dealer was sent to the center after being convicted of five fifth-degree felonies. He wanted rehabilitation, and said he would not get it in prison. Now, he looks forward to getting his GED and doing volunteer work while at the center. He also wants lawful employment and to be with the woman he loves.

However, the STAR Community Justice System now has space for 151 residents, but state budget issues will only fund 60 to stay there at one time.

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The facility, on County Road 1A in Franklin Furnace, houses offenders from nine counties: Lawrence, Adams, Brown, Clinton, Highland, Pickaway, Pike, Ross and Scioto. These offenders are non-violent, primarily those committing fourth- and fifth-degree felonies. Although the facility has only been open for 18 months, the recidivism rate is only eight percent, said Dan Hieronimus, executive director. Facilities like this throughout the state have a 30 percent rate.

Recently, a 28-bed women's unit was built on to the facility, which had the capacity for 123 men. However, the facility is only funded to handle 60 residents, Hieronimus said. The space exists, but those residents need items such as food.

The facility operates in what is known as a therapeutic community, according to information from STAR. The primary goal of this community is to foster personal growth, which is accomplished through changing an individual's lifestyle through a community of concerned people working together to help themselves and each other. Members of the community, as well as staff, act as facilitators/co-facilitators emphasizing personal responsibility for one's own life and self-improvement.

The residents also undertake volunteer work, doing work at such places as Mended Reeds in Ironton. Gregory Perry, a 33-year-old Paintsville, Ky., resident serving a Lawrence County sentence for failure to comply with the signal of a police officer, lauded the volunteer experience at the facility.

"It gives you a sense of giving back to the community that you've damaged," he said.

Perry, a former marijuana and crack user, wants to continue volunteering when he is released as well as pursue a career in working with heavy machinery.

Lawrence County Common Pleas Court judges Frank McCown and Richard Walton are members of the facility's board who Hieronimus credits for getting the facility built.

Walton said in the past, Lawrence County judges could place offenders in community based correctional facilities, but some had 4-5 month waiting periods. "We needed a place to put people in hopes they would get assistance with their problems instead of simply warehousing them in the county jail," he said.

Housing in community based correctional facilities is also "thousands and thousands" of dollars cheaper than housing someone in a penal institution, Walton said. Like Hieronimus, he also noted that the recidivism rate is much lower.

The state authorized the expansion, Walton said, but with the current state budget situation, there are no operating funds.

"It's like budgeting money to buy a car, but not budgeting for gasoline. You can't go anywhere," Walton said.

However, other facilities in the state such as ones in Cincinnati, Dayton and Athens will admit women, and men are placed in other facilities besides STAR, Walton said. For the most part, they are also accepted without undue delay.

Mark Barnett, a former Proctorville resident who now lives in Charleston, W.Va., is serving a child-support related sentence. Unlike some of his fellow residents, he did not have a substance abuse problem upon his arrival, but has had behavioral problems, much resulting from an abusive relationship.

"I don't know if this area knows much about this," he said. "In Charleston, I never heard of it. I'd like to get the name out to the community. Good things do go on here. If people need help, they give it to them."