- Parker Perry Staff Writer
Helping the nearly 300 convicts that leave Ohio prisons and return to Clark County every year can save taxpayers here millions of dollars and cut down on crime, local experts say.
Finding work is often a critical part of keeping felons from committing more crimes, said Brad Andringa, the re-entry coordinator for Opportunities for Individual Change, a local nonprofit that offers job training and other social services.
That’s why the organization’s program focused on aiding felons, Opportunities for New Directions, helped 110 ex-cons find work last year, Andringa said.
Often many employers won’t hire them.
“One is comfort zone, it’s easier to say no,” said Robert Beckel with Opportunities for New Directions.
The organization hopes to change that stigma as the men and women they work with prove themselves to be committed to a new life and working hard.
Clark County saw almost 700 felony indictments last year, significantly down from the nearly 1,500 in 2006. However 700 felonies still translates into a lot of lost jobs.
That’s one reason the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office has created a diversion program. It allows non-violent, first-time offenders to work and complete a personalized course of treatment and other steps in exchange for dropping their charges.
But the No. 1 factor in assisting felons transition back into society is something only they can control: their willingness to help themselves.
“I don’t keep anybody employed, they keep themselves employed,” Beckel said.
Calculating the costs
Helping someone who isn’t willing to work on turning their life around is fruitless, Beckel and Andringa said, but helping someone who has paid their debt to society and wants to change their life is rewarding. And it saves the community money.
“Calculating the cost of crime is tough because there are a lot of different numbers,” Andringa said.
Included in the cost are numbers like victim cost, criminal justice cost and lost productivity for both the victim and the criminal.
And then there is a direct cost to taxpayers through having to pay to house inmates in the county jail. The county spends millions dollars each year on the county jail.
Former Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly estimated last year it costs the county $125 a day to hold an inmate in jail — assuming they don’t have any severe medical issues.
There were 189 inmates in the county jail on Tuesday. The sheriff’s budget is about $15 million, the largest item in the county’s general fund budget. It also makes up more than a third of the overall budget.
Reducing the number of inmates can translate into savings for taxpayers and preventing crime saves taxpayers money by not having their property stolen.
Having someone who finds work instead of stealing from hard-working taxpayers has a huge impact, Clark County Prosecutor Andy Wilson said.
“It’s one of those things that degrade the life of your community,” he said of burglaries and other crimes. “That person from an economic position is catastrophic on our community.”
Wilson said his office tries to make sure offenders they prosecute don’t go back on the streets and break the law again.
“We’ve done a really good job in the last few years at taking out some of our repeat offenders and giving them serious long prison sentences and taking them off the street,” he said.
Wale Balogun, of Clark County, had trouble getting a new start after he was convicted of a felony.
Balogun was working full time as a tech support agent for a local company when he got caught up in an internet scam ring. He was convicted of theft and fraud, served 14 days in the Madison County Jail and returned to Clark County, where he lost his job and had to start a new life as a felon.
“When I came out, it actually affected my background and I couldn’t really apply anywhere,” he said.
He said he was constantly turned down by employers because of his felony record.
“No one could hire me because of my background because I was working with people’s information,” he said. “When I met with OND, I explained with them and they said ‘no problem.’ They helped me get back on my feet.”
He is now going back to school to learn how to work with machines. He said he wants a new, law-abiding life.
“This is a fresh start for me,” he said.
Some companies who previously refused to hire felons have started to take notice of OND’s success, Beckel said, and have come to the table. He said one reason for this change is the work their clients have done.
“Now you have men and women who have entered into their employment two, three and four years ago, and several have skills and are driven,” Beckel said. “One company finds out from another company who hired the guy they turned down and they see that you run that team now and they call down here and ask ‘Do you have anybody like that guy?’ They are looking for skilled labor that’s motivated.”
One reason Andringa believes companies are coming to the table is because a shift of thinking regarding the re-entry of convicts into society. He noted the federal government and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction have made efforts to expand efforts to cut down on how many felons commit crimes again.
Three important factors when it comes to finding a felon work is the skills he or she has, the amount of time since conviction, and how far he or she can go for work, Beckel said.
“It’s pretty good, the 90-day mark being the test, we probably fair as well as anyone doing hiring for those who don’t have felonies, maybe even a little better,” Beckel said.
Wilson has implement a diversion program for first-time, non-violent, low-level felony offenders. The program allows about 50 defendants a year to admit their guilt and work in order to keep the crime off their record.
They must complete a program individually created to address their needs so they don’t break the law again. They must also complete 20 hours of community service and typically repay their victims if thefts were involved.
The program has been successful at getting property and money back to crime victims in Clark County. Sandee Selner, the diversion coordinator at the prosecutor’s office, said it has retrieved about $150,000 that would have otherwise been lost.
“This program is more effective at getting crime victims compensated for their losses because people don’t have felony convictions and they can keep their job and keep working,” Wilson said. “That’s part of what we do. We are able to collect more money.”
About two-thirds of the diversion program participants are women, Selner said, who also tries to help the people in the program find work. She has a list of temporary agencies who are looking for employees.
One case in the diversion program involved a soldier who fought overseas, Wilson said, suffered PTSD and committed a non-violent firearm felony when he was having a breakdown.
“If that kid went into the system, he would have had a felony conviction that would have prevented him from getting work,” Wilson said. “We were able to allow this kid some mercy, although he had to climb up and get it.”
A man who asked not be identified said the diversion program has saved him.
“I can go on and live a normal life,” he said. “It is an unprecedented opportunity for me. I can take the actions of my irresponsibility and completely seal it up in a box and light it on fire.”