Hieronimus advocates for CBCFs

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 29, 2007

With Ohio’s prison population exceeding 50,000 for the first time, Dan Hieronimus thinks there might be a way to reduce the number of people who go to prison.

Hieronimus is the executive director of the STAR Community Justice Center in Franklin Furnace. It’s a court-ordered program where criminals can go as a last resort to prison. The facility, and others like it throughout Ohio, focuses on changing the people’s way of thinking.

The prisoners get up at 5:30 a.m. and clean up the facility before heading to breakfast. Their days are spent in various classes. Some are getting their GED, others are in alcohol- or drug-education classes. Other classes deal with issues like domestic violence, life skills and job readiness. All have to meet with counselors.

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Terry J. Collins, the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, said he is for the diversion of criminals to facilities like CBCFs, halfway houses and intensive probation.

“I’m a firm believer in alternative sanctions,” he said. “They provide a valuable component to the department. In my opinion, the value of them is that they keep people in the local community and they do an excellent job on employment skills and referrals for employment.”

Hieronimus said that the recidivism rate, which is the number of people who commit crimes after they are released, is around 30 percent compared to 38 for the prison system and well below the national average of 48 percent.

“This is a program that works,” said Hieronimus, who served as Lawrence County Sheriff from 1981-93. “I think it makes for safer communities.”

People come from Adams, Brown, Clinton, Highland, Lawrence, Pickaway, Pike, Ross, and Scioto counties.

Criminals go for 90 days as opposed to longer sentences in prison.

The people who are sent to the program are those who are willing to work at it. Those who don’t are sent back to the judge who sentenced them, which means the next stop is prison.

Hieronimus said the program changes a person’s thinking.

Part of it is explaining why they committed the crime and what effect it has on them, their family and others.

“It is motivated thinking,” he said. “That is something that a lot of them haven’t done.”

Among the things they learn is pro-social behavior. If they don’t get along with someone, they have to figure out how to work out their differences without resorting to violence.

The taxpayer cost of the CBCFs are cheaper than prisons, Hieronimus said.

According to Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections statistics, the average prison stay for those convicted of felony levels 3, 4 and 5 is 386 days at a cost of $25,958 a year. The average stay in the community-based correctional facilities is 120 days at a cost of $9,560. Nearly 95 percent of populations at CBCFs are criminals who have been convicted of felony levels 3, 4 and 5.

What Hieronimus would like to see is an increase of the CBCFs. He said his center currently houses about 60 men and 16 women. He said there are more beds, but they are unfunded.

“That means there aren’t enough counselors,” he said. He estimates there are around 200 such unfunded beds around Ohio at its 18 facilities.

But the problem comes down to money. While the CBCFs have a lower recidivism rate, there aren’t as many beds and the state would have to build additions to existing facilities and hire more people.

“The bottom line is where is the money going to come from?” Hieronimus said

Collins said the issue for CBCFs, like the prison system, is that they are full to their funded levels.

“And we continue to seek and look for funding opportunities for the community alternatives,” Collins said, adding that last year, several million was put into the community corrections programs and that they will continue to look for alternatives to putting people in prison.

“I’ve said many times and continue to believe that prisons should be for assaultive, predatory, violent individuals who victimize people in this great state,” Collins said. “To have the prison space for those individuals, we need to keep the low level felony offenders in local community alternatives when possible.”