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An Ohio task force wants to reduce recidivism through court programs

 A judge sits in a courtroom with his head, looking down. There is a woman sitting in a chair beside him, while another woman stands at a podium in front of him.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Judge Phil Naumoff hopes his reentry court can help the formerly incarcerated residents of Richland County find stability.

At a recent reentry court graduation in Mansfield, two men stepped up to the podium to receive a certificate and congratulations from Judge Phil Naumoff.

Both of them got the chance to share their experiences with their fellow classmates – other formerly incarcerated people who are required to come to this reentry court in Mansfield each month. One graduate offered some advice to the current ‘students’ in the room.

“Go to work and home. That’s it,” he said, inciting laughter from the courtroom.

Naumoff spent the rest of the day checking in on the progress of formerly incarcerated residents of Richland County. He inquired about their housing, their health and what job interviews they’ve had in the last month.

His court is one of a handful in the state. They’re mandated programs that assist people leaving prison for the wider world. Reentry courts are meant to help formerly incarcerated people transition back to normal life and prevent them from ending up back in the justice system.

A statewide task force is looking at how to improve them and expand them across the state. Richland County was the first in the state to adopt the practice in 2000, and the program has made its way to eight other courts in Ohio. The taskforce, commissioned by the Ohio Supreme Court, will identify best practices for the program, in hopes of reducing rates of recidivism.

Easing the transition

When John Powell, a Richland County reentry court participant, exited the courtroom, he said he felt confident in his progress. He got out of prison just three months ago.

Powell has been incarcerated three times and has spent 12 and a half years in prison. In that time, he’s missed many of his four kids' birthdays and the deaths of three of his sisters. Powell said he hopes reentry court will ensure he doesn't spend any more of his life in a cell.

“I look forward to coming here sometimes, for real. I do,” he said. “Because I find myself drifting away and then if I find myself back in here, reality hits me like, ‘You can't do that.’”

 A court building with a white arcade sits on a bright green lawn.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Richland County was home to Ohio's first reentry court, beginning in 2000.

It’s this kind of buy-in from participants that makes or breaks the year-long program, said Judge Brent Robinson. He runs the other reentry court in Richland County.

“We have a common goal and a common interest in seeing you never go back to prison again,” Robinson said. “There’s reasons why you went the first time … so we need to address those reasons, try to fix things, so you don’t go back.”

Housing, employment, mental health and substance use are all huge barriers to reentry. Robinson said courts like this help people navigate those barriers. Without any guidance, he said many people land back in the criminal justice system.

Nearly a third of Ohioans return to prison within three years of being released, according to the most recent data from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

“They have no structure, they have no assistance and they're just being thrown back into society,” Robinson said. “Basically, it's sink or swim.”

Reentry court helps keep participants accountable through check-ins, said Robinson. And, it connects them with organizations that can help them get jobs, get mental health treatment and get housing – one of the most common issues for the recently released.

Evidence-based practice

Despite being around for more than two decades, there’s not much data on the efficacy of Ohio’s reentry courts.

In Richland County, around 70% of participants graduate from the program, and Robinson said the vast majority don’t re-offend. But, recidivism rates in the county aren’t lower than the state average.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy said a lack of research is exactly why a task force is needed. She believes the courts are worth the investment.

“The question is: If we don't have the data, do we stop doing it?” she said. “We just know that if we don't have supportive services, they are coming back.”

Kennedy assembled the task force. She said the group of judges, law enforcement and community service providers will aim to figure out what’s working and what’s not in reentry courts, both in Ohio and across the country.

“They're now charged with going out and finding the best services that are evidence-based in order for us to apply it here in Ohio,” Kennedy said.

“They have no structure, they have no assistance and they're just being thrown back into society. Basically, it's sink or swim.”
Judge Brent Robinson

Kennedy said she believes the task force can help guide the courts to be as effective as possible. After that, hopefully, she said they’ll be able to increase the number of those courts in the state – and with it, resources for the formerly incarcerated.

“They have paid a debt to society and that's done. They're entitled to live the life restored, and we should be doing everything possible to making them successful,” she said.

In the meantime, re-entry courts are making a difference on an individual level, for Ohioans like Powell. He said, without it, he’d probably be back in prison.

“That's not my life no more. I don’t want that no more. They can have that,” he said. “I'm moving forward. I ain't moving back and not looking back.”

Instead, he’s focused on his family. He said the desire to be with them will carry him to graduation day.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.