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GOSHEN -- Sending lawbreakers to the maximum-security jail here, Tara Boocher thinks, only goes so far in dealing with crime and the issues that lead to crime.
Had the county never strayed from a focus on simply locking up criminals, in fact, things could have gotten worse.
"It wouldn't have helped anybody. It would've increased the jail population," says Boocher, executive director of Elkhart County Community Corrections, the Goshen-based department that oversees alternatives to conventional incarceration, such as the county's work-release program. "It definitely wouldn't have helped the offenders."
Other Elkhart County judicial and law enforcement officials concur, which helps explain the spike over the past three years in the number of offenders served by Boocher's office, an independent county department just since Jan. 1. About 600 low-level offenders now are sentenced to community corrections -- that is, work release, electronic monitoring or day reporting programs. That's about double the number in 2008, when the emphasis here on alternatives to the maximum-security jail really started taking off.
"I believe that not everyone who commits a crime needs to be incarcerated in jail or prison, particularly for low-line offenders," Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers said in an e-mail.
If not for community corrections, he's convinced the jail, which opened south of Elkhart in 2007 to replace a cramped facility on Third Street near downtown Goshen, would be at capacity. The 1,002-bed jail now houses around 800 inmates, 150 of them Indiana Department of Correction offenders held optionally by the county for the fees they generate -- $35 per inmate per day -- from the state.
Elkhart Superior Court 2 Judge Stephen Bowers describes the shift from traditional incarceration to community corrections as a break from an outmoded model that never worked particularly well. Though other locales also are increasingly turning to alternatives to jailing, Elkhart County has been on the "leading edge" of the movement in Indiana.
"You can't just take the position that we're going to punish, punish, punish and realistically believe we're going to make any difference," Bowers said.
Jail can keep dangerous offenders out of circulation, safeguarding the public, he said. But it can also put low-level offenders in contact with more serious criminals who serve as mentors, reinforcing and exacerbating their wayward ways.
Part of the goal of community corrections is keeping lower-level criminals working, when possible, and out the tougher jail environment. Programming geared at rehabilitating them and steering them away from a life of crime -- a growing part of the standard jail curriculum -- is also key in the process.
CHEAPER THAN INCARCERATION?
The new focus here on community corrections -- the short-hand term for alternatives to traditional incarceration -- dates at least to 2005. That's when discussion of the issue, championed by Sheriff Mike Books, Rogers' predecessor, came to a head, leading to a local study into the issue by the University of Cincinnati.
In 2008, the Elkhart County Sheriff's Department and Elkhart County Community Corrections started phasing in changes and the number of offenders sentenced to the county's work-release and electronic-monitoring programs started growing.
As of Jan. 1, oversight of the security officers at the minimum-security community corrections building at 201 N. Cottage Ave. in Goshen shifted from the sheriff's department to Boocher's office. That completed its transition to a county department.
One of the end results has been a large spike in the Elkhart County Community Corrections budget.
In 2008, as its transition into an independent department started, its general fund spending plan totaled $413,238. That grew to $1.51 million for 2011, and if grant funding from the state is included, the budget is even larger.
Still, the general fund increase, by and large, doesn't reflect new spending. It reflects shifting of budgeted amounts previously included in the sheriff's department spending plan. What's more, community corrections generates around $1 million per year in fees offenders pay to take part in its varied programs.
Boocher and Rogers suspect it's cheaper to process offenders through community corrections programs than the county jail, though they don't yet have any hard numbers to point to.
'NOT A PANACEA'
Of course, community corrections programs aren't for everybody.
Only low- to medium-risk offenders may take part, at the discretion of judges and community corrections officials. Typical participants include those convicted of not paying child support, drug possession and theft, but no sex offenders, drug dealers or violent criminals.
And though those sentenced to community corrections enjoy freedoms that those in the maximum-security jail don't, officials reject the notion that they're somehow getting off easy. They still face strict supervision and must complete programming meant, among other things, to help them understand and counter the sort of impulses that led them to criminal behavior.
"I honestly think we make it really hard on them," Boocher said.
Bowers acknowledges that some offenders take advantage of the relative freedoms granted via community corrections, occasionally skipping out.
"The community corrections programs are not a panacea. We still have people who do stupid things," he said.
But if the ultimate hope is rehabilitation and an end to criminal recidivism, he, Boocher and Rogers say new methods need to be used.
"We're not in the business to be a revolving door," said Boocher. "We don't want them to come back to our facility -- that is the point."