Just as DNA analysis proves that no two people have the same make up, the Ripley County Prosecutor's Office wants to take the "no cookie cutter" approach to a new level when it comes to dealing with non-violent offenders.
Overcrowding in the jails and the cost to house prisoners are just two of the components that make the Community Corrections program the right one for Ripley County. It goes much deeper.
First, there is no cost to the taxpayer as the county is eligible for a yearly grant of $169,000 from the Indiana Department of Corrections for the program. The prosecutor noted last Friday at a press conference that his office has begun the process to obtain those funds by drafting a grant.
The Ripley County Commissioners have already proactively given permission for the process of organizing a Community Corrections program to begin. This entails the creation of an advisory panel of people from the county and the approval and submission of the grant with final approval coming from the department of corrections.
Community Corrections is nothing new in Indiana, it would just be something new to the county. Something desperately needed, according to the prosecutorial team, which includes Prosecutor Ric Hertel, Chief Deputy Prosecutor Ryan King and the newest member of the team, Shane Tucker, deputy prosecutor. All three men agreed they are 100% on board and feel the county would benefit in a number of ways from the program that already is in place in 78 of the 92 other counties in the state.
Hertel noted that the program provides alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders. Alternatives could include work release or home incarceration, meaning a person could be sentenced and still be able to provide for their family. Hertel said he believes a key component of the overall program is the work release portion. "We're keeping them (the offender) engaged in society, and they're providing for their family," he noted.
But, they will be monitored closely. Hertel said the work release program officiated by the sheriff's office, is currently not being used by the courts. As of now there is no alternative to jail. Believing that a community corrections program will benefit the entire county, Hertel noted, "having viable alternatives to incarceration at the department of corrections is potentially beneficial to offenders, victims and the community as a whole."
Offenders will be individually assessed and could qualify for work release, home incarceration, day reporting, drug testing, outpatient and inpatient services, along with many other options available.
Within the community corrections programs, the prosecutor wants to implement a problem solving court or drug court for substance abusers. Hertel and his team are strong supporters of the drug court saying that if initiated correctly can be a "win-win" for everyone involved.
Describing the drug court as a second chance for those addicted to substances, prosecutors agree it's not a "get out of jail free" program. "They've (offenders) got to work hard," Hertel said. So does the prosecutorial team, where most of the burden lies when an offender is sentenced through the drug court. It also puts an additional load on the judges, and, in this case, would be Judge James Morris' Superior Court.
"We are prepared to carry our end of the load," noted Hertel. He said a problem solving court is essentially a treatment court. He noted that the program runs up to two years with a graduation ceremony conducted after successful completion. And, there's something else. If the participant successfully completes the program, the conviction would be set aside or expunged. This is truly important for those seeking employment after being in jail. When they are released with no rehabilitation and have been out of the mainstream of society, coupled with the fact they now have a felony on their records, finding a job isn't an easy task. Oftentimes it leads the offender back down the same path as before.
Something King pointed out is that while in jail the substance abuse offender "dries out". Upon release, they fall back with the same crowd, perhaps begin abusing again, and that's when their body isn't up to the level it was when they were taken to jail. "We've seen it in this county more than once," King said, as he told how when the abuser begins to use again, it kills them.
Hertel pointed out that if a substance abuser is caught just a mile outside of the Sunman area in Dearborn County or in Jefferson County, they could have the opportunity of going to a drug court. But, Ripley County offers nothing but jail.
While the prosecutors know it's a lot of work on everyone in the justice system, they are passionate about the success stories they have heard and want residents of their county to experience the same. The program would be tailored to Ripley County and its needs. In the end, the belief of the prosecutors is that it will save taxpayers money, keep the community safer, and perhaps save that person who has gotten addicted, or into trouble and needs help to overcome the problem.
The increased problem of prescription drug usage, along with heroin and methamphetamine in the county could be combated with this widely researched and proven option.
"With the overdose deaths, increased usage, and limited treatment options, I believe this may be the right option for some nonviolent offenders," Hertel noted. When he began his career 14 years ago, Hertel said he probably wouldn't have been as receptive to the idea. Now, he along with King, who has been in the prosecution business for 10 years, agree it's vital to the success of a community at large. "After seeing the devastation drugs and alcohol has on people, I realize there has to be something more," Hertel said. "It's probably one of the most exciting times in Ripley County," he noted as he looks forward to working hard, and hopefully being a part of something much larger - the community corrections program, with many components.
The Community Corrections Program would be structured with an independent panel or "board". This is mandatory of statute IC 11-12-2-2 and includes the sheriff, prosecutor, director of Department of Child Services, mayor of Batesville and Judges Carl Taul and James Morris.
The panel also includes appointees by the county commissioners, which would include someone who is a public defender, victim or victim advocate, offender, county council member, probation officer, education administration, mental health administrator, four lay persons with one being a minority. These are four-year appointments. Oversight powers would ultimately rest with the department of community corrections.
Hertel believes how the program is set up is important. He believes in the diversity and says, "that levels the balance of power so as to not give one entity the ability to change directions because of personal beliefs." He noted that the program is not a court run program, but instead provides the court, prosecutor and public defender with alternative options, depending on the crime and the offender, to treat the offender's core issues.
Since May of this year when Hertel was first contacted about the program by the department of corrections, he has done his homework having visited surrounding counties and researching the pros and cons of the program. Since then, he doesn't see a downside. He hopes the program will be well received by all involved parties saying it brings options and alternatives to make Ripley County a better place to live.
Seeing the program grow over a 30-year period, Hertel said, "There is no need to re-invent the wheel as we have been shown what works in about 90% of Indiana, and the benefits are apparent." He reassures citizens that violent offenders, such as rapists, child molesters, murderers etc., will still be put in jail and the public is not at risk with the offenders who would be monitored closely through the program.
Prosecutors work hard to put criminals behind bars in this county. However, not every crime fits the mold. "We can do better," Hertel concluded.
After the prosecutor gets the go-ahead from commissioners, he will submit the grant to the state and the process will begin in earnest. Commissioners are in the process of appointing designees for the independent advisory.
WANDA ENGLISH BURNETT PHOTO
Prosecutor Ric Hertel, pictured left, talks about the Community Corrections program and the possibilities to make Ripley County a better place for everyone.