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As Prisons Reach Capacity, Ohio Offers Some Offenders An Alternative Path

Adora Namigadde
Stephanie Kirkpatrick, now 14 months sober, was offered a way out of prison and will soon graduate from drug recovery court.

In her quiet country home in Wilmington, Stephanie Kirkpatrick’s goal is just to keep out of trouble.

“When I was in the fifth grade, remember when they had the DARE program?" Kirkpatrick says. "I’m the one that won the blue ribbon contest, I’m the one that gave the speech.”

Since her teenage years, though, Kirkpatrick has struggled with drugs. Life as a methamphetamine cook and heroin addict eventually lost the 36-year-old custody of her three children, and she spent a year and a half in jail.

Losing her children was the push she needed to seriously consider getting help. But it was a single judge, and an experimental program called Targeted Community Alternative to Prison, that gave her the chance to reenter the world.

Recovery, Not Recidivism

“I was actually wanting to get clean," Kirkpatrick says. "I had taken the steps on my own, already went to Mental Health, gotten the Substance Abuse Mental Health program, started taking classes."

But in 2015, Kirkpatrick relapsed. She was supposed to be imprisoned for 18 months.

A month and a half into her sentence, though, Judge John Rudduck looked at her previous efforts to sober up and offered her an alternative path: drug recovery court. 

Last October, the state gave Rudduck a grant of $199,092 for his and other programs in Clinton County to help low-level offenders integrate back into the community. Clinton is one of eight counties currently participating in the Targeted Community Alternative to Prison pilot program.

For people like Kirkpatrick, Rudduck says his program provides a more effective - and longer-lasting - solution.

“Instead of sending folks to prison for these health issues, we’re trying to advance a new treatment model in terms of dealing with it locally,” Rudduck says.

Rudduck's program tackles rehabilitation and reintegration from a number of angles.

“I’ve hired a medical doctor who now gives us medical advice on how to best develop treatment programs for the folks who come before me in this category," Rudduck says. "We’ve hired an additional supervision officer. We’ve now implemented a software drug-testing program.”

Other participating counties have taken similar steps, hiring staffers to monitor offenders and offer counseling. They also use funding to purchase software that keeps track of drug usage - the ultimate goal being to find the best methods of treatment for each user.

After six months of piloting the initiative, Governor Kasich is ready to expand. His state budget plan proposes an allotment of $58 million for the Targeted Community Alternative to Prison program over two years. That would reach 40-50 counties in the first year alone – about half the state.

Not Enough Space

In Ohio, where the prison population is quickly outgrowing the number of available cells, that expansion couldn't come fast enough.

Some 20,000 Ohioans entered prison last year, says, Gary Mohr, the state's director of rehabilitation and correction.

“A little over 4,100 are doing the lightest felony sentence, felony five," Mohr says, "and the highest number of those folks are coming in for drug possession."

Diverting some of those low-level offenders into alternative programs, outside of prisons, will not only help offenders but also the state budget.

“To build one prison and operate it for two decades costs one billion dollars, and I’m not going to leave that legacy," Mohr says.

Under the expanded program, Ohio would pay counties $23 per prisoner per day. Keeping someone in prison, meanwhile, costs $67.84 every day.

Beyond the money, Mohr says Ohio has a moral responsibility to decrease the number of people in jails.

If the program doesn't pass, Mohr says, “I think I would have to step down, I believe so much that this is the right thing to do."

Set Up To Fail?

Despite Mohr's insistence, the program does have its critics. Christopher Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, worries the loss of prison money will mean fewer jobs - primarily, prison guards.

“I think any money we divert away from the budget in DRC wholeheartedly will continue to cut back our staff," Mabe says. "We’ll lose more staff through attrition - not through a layoff process, but as people retire that’s where we’ve lost most of them over the years.”

He also says the $2 million going toward the pilot program now is not properly accounted for.

“If I were going to do this, I would have stringent accountability measures on what type of programming here would run," Mabe says. "I would be compiling data on success or failure and structuring that into the process of the program.”

The General Assembly of the legislature will have final say about whether the Targeted Community Alternative to Prison program makes it into the final version of the budget.

Up And Out

So far, though, the program can at least count Kirkpatrick as one of its successes. Now sober for 14 months, Kirkpatrick will graduate from drug court as soon as April 28.

She says the program opened doors for her future that would otherwise stay closed. Kirkpatrick works at her local McDonald's, and she's excited about the possibility of winning back custody of her kids.

“I’m working now, never ever thought I would be working," Kirkpatrick says. "You know, I’m a convicted felon. Nobody in Wilmington hires felons.”