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Post-Release Programs Key to Young Offenders Staying out of Jail

Two years ago, the Ohio Department of Youth Services released onto parole two thousand young offenders. By next year, half of them will likely be back in jail. Corrections officials describe the young people sentenced to DYS facilities as "tough kids" who've experienced years of hurt.

DYS officials are placing additional emphasis on finding programs and volunteers to stay out of jail. WOSU concludes a series on reducing the recidivism rate with a look at what are known as aftercare programs.

16-year-old Angelo has been at the Marion Juvenile Correctional Facility for six months for his involvement with a robbery. His age places him in the majority of those behind bars in DYS facilities. Most are 16 or 17-years-old.

Angelo comes from Cleveland where, he says, there is a lot of violence. Like many other young inmates, he doesn't want to return to his former neighborhood.

"My mother moved to Columbus, so I'm goin' back to a new environment that gives me a new setting to start my life off," says the soft-spoken young man.

The Ohio Department of Youth Services is in the first year of expanded emphasis on transitional or re-entry programs. DYS Director Tom Stickrath says, rather than focusing on just young offenders and their behaviors, it's important to involve the family and d the community.

"We have them ten and a half months on average. These are not DYS kids. They're Cleveland's kids and Columbus's kids and Springfield's kids."

Some re-entry efforts involving community volunteers take place before as well as after release from prison. Chris Money is a special assistant to Stickrath and responsible for the developing reentry services at DYS and finding volunteers.

"They come to provide services and engage with our kids. And whether that's mentors or sports activities, or religious services, we're seeing that facilities that are saturated with those kinds of activities and volunteers have less incidents."

Young people behind bars are clearly a captive audience for volunteer and mentor programs and for lessons on non-violent ways to resolve conflict, anger management and developing social & communication skills.

But criminal justice researcher Ed Latessa of the University of Cincinnati says the problem is, young offenders don't have a chance to use what they've learned in the real world until they're released.

"And that's why most studies show it's very important to have a strong, structured aftercare program where the youth is continuing to get support and someone's there to help them and correct them and keep them on the right path," says Latessa who does studies for DYS.

Mark Jackson's re-entry program through the Alvis House is one example of connecting lessons taught behind bars to the real world. The Alvis House specializes in the needs of juveniles and adults who have spent time in prison.

While Jackson is working with more than 90 young people in five DYS facilities, he is also in touch with their families. During a recent class in the Marion facility, he tells the young men he is pleased with their work on a recent essay.

"Angelo, I was so proud of what you wrote I had to call your mother," says Jackson. "And your mother said, Mr. Jackson, I already know he can write like that! She was in tears and said thank you for callin' and tellin' me something wonderful about my child!"

17-year-old Edgar has been at the Marion facility for two years for felonious assault and discharging a firearm. As he nears release, he gives himself an 85 percent chance of being able to stay out of jail.

"I been thinkin' a lot about how things gonna be 'cause I've adjusted to here," says Edgar. "It's sort of hard for me to define what it's like goin' out. Lotta people gone. Lotta people move. Lotta change. I know I got big dreams, though. I just don't know how I'm gonna fulfill 'em."

Edgar says he wants to rise above the place where he came from and "elevate his knowledge." Angelo has similar goals. He says the Alvis House re-entry program has been a big help.

"Everything you go over is something we should have known but didn't. It's exciting to figure out I could do this or that. He's talking about jobs already - get a job, school, how they gonna help us out, keep us positive, and we look at it like, yeah, we really wanna do this!"

Angelo wants to go to college and major in business and technology. While at Marion, he has developed a business proposal and hopes one day to run his own company. And, in September, 16-year-old Angelo expects to welcome his first child.

Mark Jackson says some programs developed for young offenders fail to consider how complex these young people are on multiple levels. "They need their dignity. They need their respect. They need to feel like they have some control over their lives."

Jackson says he uses the same approach with every young offender every day.

"Children are not what they did. What they did is what they did. And, every kid has a story. Sometime, it just needs to be told."