An increased focus on community programming and treatment is helping Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction keep inmates from returning to prison. But few of the options being lauded for the reduced recidivism are available in rural communities, an issue that local and state officials would like to see changed.
In fact, a local county-Noble County-has the highest recidivism rate in the state.
According to the state, Ohio's three-year prison recidivism rate dropped to 27.09 percent this year. The number is well below the national average-between 40 and 44 percent-and represents a steady drop over the last decade when Ohio inmates were returning to prison at a rate of 39.06 percent.
The drop represents a shift in the focus of the department, said Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC).
"We changed our mission statement in 2011. Our goal is to reduce the recidivism among those we touch," he said.
The shift has meant a greater reliance on alternatives to prison, many community-based. According to the DRC website, there are 22 halfway houses and 19 Community Based Correctional Facilities (CBCFs) across the state.
By the numbers
Ohio prison recidivism rates by inmate's county of commitment
Washington County-20.7 percent.
Noble County-52.9 percent.
Morgan County-40 percent.
Athens County-26.5 percent.
Monroe County-20 percent.
Meigs County-16.4 percent.
Source: Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Both types of facilities focus on elements that have been proven to help offenders successfully re-enter society, such as drug treatment, education, employment counseling and job placement.
But many of the facilities, especially halfway houses, are concentrated in the state's more urban areas. The closest halfway house to the Marietta area is in Lancaster.
This placement makes them relatively futile for communities like those in Washington County, said Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Ed Lane.
The problem, said Lane, is the program's focus on reintegration into the community in which they are located.
Having a job lined up in Columbus is of little use for a local offender returning to Washington County, he said.
"There's no job lined up for them here. There's no reintegration into the home community. It's a recipe for disaster," said Lane.
Halfway houses provide transitional housing, and therein an opportunity for judicial release. Inmates can, at the approval of the Adult Parole Authority, be released early from their prison sentence and transition into the facilities.
However, sentencing judges have the option to veto these requests, which Lane always does, he said.
A local halfway house would be a huge help for offenders in Washington and surrounding rural counties, he added.
"They'd be hooked up with counseling and local community recovery groups and they would have a job," said Lane.
If judges do sentence someone into a CBCF, such as SEPTA Correctional Facility in Nelsonville, the sentence almost always includes a jail term in the local jail as well.
When the current Washington County Jail was built in 2004, the anticipation was the facility would house approximately 85 inmates at any given time.
Now the jail normally houses between 105 and 115 inmates and hits its 124 bed capacity on weekends, said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks.
"Our anticipation was 85 and it sort of inched up to where we're at now," he said.
Recidivism at the local jail is staggering compared to state levels. Of the 108 people incarcerated at the jail last Wednesday, 98 had previously been incarcerated there and another six had been incarcerated elsewhere, said Mincks.
While Washington County's prison recidivism rate is actually lower than the state average-20.7 percent-two of the more rural neighboring counties clock in with the first and fifth highest recidivism in the state.
Noble County, with a 52.9 percent recidivism rate, has the highest in the state. Morgan County has the fifth highest rate at 40 percent.
Part of Noble's high recidivism rate could be related to the location of Noble Correctional Institution in the county, said Noble County Prosecutor Kelly Riddle.
"We get cases from the prison like drug conveyances, assaults on each other, on guards. I probably present a good seven cases every grand jury, which we have every other month," said Riddle.
If someone is convicted in Noble County of a crime committed at the prison, sentenced and released, and re-enters prison within three years, it would count toward the county's recidivism rate, she noted.
Riddle also noted that Noble County has no re-entry coalition and no transitional or community corrections facilities in the county.
Mohr agreed that rural communities need more options.
"A little higher recidivism rates are coming from these rural counties that do not have a continuum of community sanctions. If we're able to build them where they don't exist, our future is better," he said.
For that reason, the department is dedicated to allocated more funding for prison alternative programs, he said.
The equation, said Mohr, is simple-less people in prison means more money for other options.
"In fact, we just awarded about 10 million dollars more in community corrections money in pilot programs to look at three tracks," he said.
The three tracks help communities fund community corrections supervision, community treatment and prison diversion programs.
But it is not only the state programs that are having an impact. Community members are getting involved in Ex-Offender Reentry Coalitions throughout the state, which are providing returning inmates with advice and support on a local level, said Mohr.
"Can you imagine the county sheriff and other officials making a welcome home video (saying), 'We want you to be successful. We want you to get a job. Here's some phone numbers that may help,'" said Mohr as an example.
For a time, Washington County had such a coalition, funded by a DRC grant and coordinated by Dawn Rauch, director of planning and development for Washington-Morgan Community Action.
The grant allowed Rauch to formulate strategic plans for future programming-housing, employment, treatment programs, she said.
"But we've not received funding for any of the identified strategies," she said.
The county's reentry coalition, which was comprised of local officials, law enforcement officers, legal aid, area churches, and area organizations, is no longer active, she said.