Crime & Punishment
Program seeks to combat growing problem, address handling prisoners
This Monday, six acres of unused Lawrence County land will be cleared and readied for planting and plowing.
Months and months of planning have been behind this endeavor, but the farmers are not going to be your typical Lawrence Countians.
The men and women who will till the soil and plant the crops will be convicted felons, part of a new alternative sentencing program that is partly in answer to state felony sentencing guideline changes and partly in answer to a growing crime and drug problem that local officials said isn’t going to go away on its own.
Changes in code
A common perception of courts and crime is that local judges are either “soft on crime” or “hanging judges.” The reality is more complex. Local judges, while they do have some latitude in sentencing, must stay within very specific parameters set by Ohio Revised Code, which determines the minimum and maximum sentence a felon may receive for his or her crime.
A local judge could not bypass these parameters and simply sentence a drug dealer to 100 years in prison for a first offense or give a burglar the death penalty, regardless of how much he may want to do so.
Lawrence County Common Pleas Presiding Judge Charles Cooper said he has seen the state legislature enact sentencing reforms two or three times since he began practicing law in 1973.
The most recent revision in sentencing guidelines has forced local courts to change what they do with many offenders.
Judge D. Scott Bowling said the state has always preferred that non-violent first-time fourth and fifth-degree felony offenders be given probation instead of being sent to prison but House Bill 86, passed in September 2011, mandates it.
In other words, local judges have no choice in this. They cannot send a first-time non-violent felon to a state prison.
Cooper said the state is even placing restrictions on some non-violent third-degree felony offenders. The amount of time such convicts can be sent to prison has been reduced from five years to three.
“There are exclusions (to the new sentencing guidelines),” Cooper said. “If a firearm was used, or if they physically harmed another, if they have a prior felony conviction (they can be sent to prison).”
Cooper said the problem is that the state wants counties to keep such offenders in county jails and the Lawrence County Jail is often so crowded that inmates must be sent to jails in other counties. There is another catch to housing inmates in county jail: the cost.
“It means the Lawrence County Commission and the local taxpayers are picking up the cost and this is an unfunded mandate. I can’t imagine the county commissioners or the taxpayers would be at all pleased that the state is balancing its budget by shifting the cost to them,” Cooper said.
Cooper said the state law was changed because state prisons were becoming crowded — particularly until Cuyahoga County opened its community based correctional facility (CBCF).
This change in state law has forced local officials to alter the way they deal with these non-violent felons. Their solution is an alternative sentencing program that seeks not only to do something with the convicts but seeks to reduce the number of convicts in the first place.
While the notion of alternative sentencing may not be palatable to some people who have a “throw ‘em all in prison” attitude, local officials have no choice.
If the state won’t take them and the county jail is overcrowded, then local officials must find ways of dealing with escalating crime.
Officials got together to address the issue.
The result is a new program that will be called Life Intervention and Diversion (LID). It was developed with the input of numerous local agencies, not just courts and law enforcement but also the Ironton-Lawrence County Community Action Organization, The Workforce Development Resource Center and the Lawrence-Scioto Solid Waste Management District, to name a few.
The CAO will be the administrative agency for the program while the supervision will come from the Lawrence County Adult Probation Agency.
The program is meant to address why the felons are in the criminal court system to begin with.
Both Bowling and ILCAO Assistant Director Ralph Kline pointed out many felons have a variety of problems that cause or contribute to their crime: substance abuse, a poor family environment, the wrong kind of friends and the lack of job skills.
“Probably 90 percent of (court) cases are alcohol and drug-related,” Bowling said.
Local officials have decided that if they are ever going to tackle the escalating crime problem, which is fueled by the escalating drug and alcohol problem, they need to get to the root.
“Part of the alternative sentencing is providing help, helping them get an education, helping them get counseling. It’s a holistic treatment of the individual while they are serving their sentence,” Kline said.
In the past, these individual programs have been available to felons, but now, officials are packaging them together.
“It’s alternative sentencing versus spending time in jail and this is how it’s going to be,” Kline said.
Kline and Dan Palmer, director of the solid waste management district, pointed out the program will provide structure that some felons have never had in their lives.
“They didn’t grow up in an environment with structure and that’s what it takes to hold down a job,” Kline said.
Those who choose not to adhere to every single facet of the program have an option: jail time.
Bowling would like to see the program eventually include transitional housing. Often people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol have nowhere to go, once they have been convicted and on probation, except back to the living arrangement that may have started or exacerbated the substance abuse. Removing substance abusers from the people and situations that would have a negative effect on them is often key to a recovering addict’s success.
Betting the farm
One of the facets of the alternative sentencing program is a work farm.
Felons will be brought to the farm to grow vegetables that will be used at the Lawrence County Jail to reduce food costs. The food will also be distributed to the county’s senior centers, early childhood centers and food pantries to help.
Palmer came up with the idea of starting such a farm in Lawrence County. He and his enforcement officer, Steve Hileman, were tracking down a person who had had trash illegally dumped in Lawrence County.
The woman who owned the illegally dumped trash was from Kentucky. She had paid someone to haul off trash and the person had chosen to take it to a Lawrence County back road and dump it for free rather than take it to a landfill as he was paid to do.
While tracking him down, the solid waste officials came upon the Greenup County, Ky., work farm that was started roughly six years ago. It’s mission is to put offenders to work, make them pay their debt to society and get useful produce for the jails and organizations.
Palmer brought the idea back to Lawrence County officials who think the farm idea will work here.
So far this has cost the county nothing. More than forty acres of land was donated by the Lawrence Economic Development Corp.
County officials have not made the location of the farm public until some security features are in place.
Palmer got seeds donated, too. He got three vans donated to haul the workers back and forth, so no one will have the excuse they don’t have a ride.
Kline pointed out the idea of starting a program that includes a farm was not something that began yesterday.Key people representing several entities have been meeting, researching and working on the idea for nearly a year.
Officials point out the program is a better alternative than putting people in jail or on home confinement.
Kline said the farm is not the only work the felons will be assigned. There are cemeteries that need care and ditches that need to be cleaned. The program will not stop in the winter months; there is work elsewhere the felons can do.
Kline said the new program will accept donations from the community.
Richard Berry is the coordinator of Greenup County, Ky., alternative sentencing program. With the assistance of a couple of farm foremen, Berry keeps as many as 65 or 70 community service workers busy growing anything that can put in the ground.
“We grew about 2,000 pounds of potatoes last year,” Berry said. “We saved the jail about $32,000 last year. We got a six-acre farm; it feeds the jail. It feeds different charities.”
The vegetables are provided fresh in the summer to the county jail and Greenup County organizations that help the needy. In the fall the vegetables are frozen for winter use.
When it’s too cold to farm, Berry keeps them busy painting rooms at elementary schools, cutting weeds and doing other chores.
“We saved about $130,000 in labor costs last year,” Berry said.
With his military background, Berry runs his program with precision: The hours are 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Slackers and people who miss work for any reason other that a doctor-vouched illness have to serve additional time.
He believes this program gives structure and instills the values of hard work, responsibility and clean living.
“They have to learn to be accountable and this program holds them accountable,” Berry said. “Some of these people have never been held accountable for anything in their lives. It’s a good program.”
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