Novel Program Seeks To Reduce Recidivism For Serious Felons

Saturday, July 7th 2007, 1:56 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Hardened criminals often walk out of prison in Oklahoma unsupervised, with $50 in their pockets and bus tickets to cities where they last broke the law.

Most often they wind up back behind prison walls after committing another armed robbery or other serious offense against the public.

Now the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, through a contract with Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel, is launching a program to give hard-bitten inmates 90 days of intense attention before their release. The hope is to steer them away from their criminal ways, thus increasing the public's safety.

Corrections Director Justin Jones says that under the novel program, so-called ``flat-liners'' will get help with mental illness, substance abuse, reconnecting with their families, finding a job and a place to live and honing educational and technical skills.

Flat-liner is a term used by prison officials to describe an inmate who serves out his or her full term and goes free without any kind of supervision, such as requirements that bind someone who gets a parole.

Ninety-eight secure beds are being made available at the county jail in Oklahoma City for the pilot program. Inmates will begin arriving this month.

``To us, this is a win-win,'' Whetsel said. ``They are going to hit the (Oklahoma City) streets, no matter what.'' He said the help they will get at the county jail is something they would not have gotten during their last days in prison.

Jones said a team of specialists will assist inmates. ``If they choose, a mentor will be assigned to them from a faith-based organization,'' he said.

Inmates with anger problems will get counseling and psychotropic drugs, if appropriate.

Jones said the program is unique because the usual emphasis is on helping low-risk offenders, such as those convicted of minor drug crimes.

In Oklahoma, many of those inmates go to halfway houses, or community corrections centers or work-release centers, which have been shown to reduce recidivism.

Some of the more hardened criminals choose to waive paroles and serve out their full terms so they can escape supervision, Jones said.

``They are going to get out, whether we like it or not,'' Jones said. Why not try to use proven methods to reduce their high recidivism rate? he asks.

``We believe one of the best ways to provide public safety is through successful re-entry of inmates into society. Therefore, you don't have future victims. You don't have future increases in taxpayer money going to incarcerate someone over and over again.''

He said evidence-based research shows things can be done to curb by 30 percent the recidivism rate of the type of criminals who will be part of the project.

``I have to applaud Sheriff Whetsel. He has dedicated one full-time employee to help us reintegrate these offenders and has given us office space to work out of so we can have case managers right on the site to assist these offenders in connecting with community resources and their families and other aspects that have been proven to reduce recidivism with this high-risk group.''

Under the contract, Jones said, the DOC will pay $32 a day for housing the inmates and there is leeway to help with extra costs incurred by the sheriff's agency.

Jones said corrections officials would like to expand the program in the future to other populous counties where inmates return after finishing their sentences.

He said officials explored such a program in Tulsa, but could not find a site deemed secure enough for the high-risk group.

He said group will include armed robbers, violent offenders, drug traffickers, sex offenders and inmates who were not convicted of violent crimes, but had problems in prison with anger, mental health episodes or misconduct that prevented their possibility of being paroled.

He said statistics will be kept on the program's success, using strict standards required by the federal Bureau of Prisons.

``It will be validated stuff,'' Jones said. ``It will be something the rest of the country can look at if we are successful.''