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Lowering the prison return rate

It's just before 8:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday at the Robert F. Stephens Circuit Courthouse, and it's obvious most folks would rather be somewhere else.

Heads are down, arms are crossed and eyes are glued to the floor of the multipurpose room on the courthouse's first floor.

Then Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson starts making his rounds.

"Hi, I'm Ray Larson," the longtime prosecutor says as he reaches down to shake the hand of a man with a crewcut and camouflage pants, whose right leg bounces nervously.

The man, like many other people gathered here on May 5, had recently been paroled. He served a little more than 22 years in prison for murder, he tells Larson.

Larson stops and looks at him again. "I prosecuted you," he said. "There was another guy involved."

Larson doesn't comment further on the murder charge. He wants to know if the man has found a job and asks about his favorite television show.

As Larson turns on the same charm that he has used on juries for more than 30 years, the more than 30 people in the room start to relax. They laugh. They talk.

Larson has made this same round of introductions to recent probationers and parolees every other Tuesday for four years. The purpose: to keep these people from going back to prison. The simple one-hour meet-and-greet appears to work.

Of the 1,747 people who have been through the program, only 20 percent have had their parole or probation revoked. That's much better than the state's average of about 35 percent and the national average of 55 percent.

Larson isn't the only one looking at ways to keep people from reoffending or violating the terms of their probation or parole. Gov. Steve Beshear recently appointed a task force to look at ways to cut the state's prison population.

The task force has a lofty goal of cutting recidivism — or offenders being returned to prison — by 50 percent in the next five years. It's a tall order.

Kentucky recently earned the dubious distinction of being the state with the fastest-growing prison population, according to a 2008 Pew Center Foundation study. The study also showed that Kentucky's prison population is expected to grow in coming years.

And it's costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Last year, the Department of Corrections' annual budget was $449 million, up from just $7 million in 1970.

The group will be looking at programs such as the one in Fayette County for clues on what works and what doesn't.

Most people who are sent back to prison are returned because of a technical violation of their probation or parole — they fail a drug test, they can't hold down a job or they don't report to their probation or parole officer. Although recidivism is 35 percent in Kentucky, only 9 percent of those people are returned to prison because they committed a new crime.

The state has a patchwork of re-entry programs for people either on parole or on probation, but there is no state-wide, unified effort to stop people from reoffending.

That's a problem, said Mark Stonex, a district supervisor for Probation and Parole in Western Kentucky.

Stonex started a program two years ago, with the blessing of the Department of Corrections, called the Parole, Orientation, Rehabilitation, Training, Assimilation, Lesson Plan, or PORTAL to Success. The program involves classes one day a month on such topics as managing parole, basic nutrition and job search strategies. Only those who are on parole are eligible for the program.

The state is crunching numbers to show how effective the program has been in keeping offenders from violating conditions of their parole or committing new crimes.

"I know it's working," Stonex said.

Stonex and Western Kentucky University are applying for a Department of Justice grant to expand the program to other areas. Right now, probation and parole and other community leaders run the program with no additional money. About 185 people have participated.

Stonex, who started his career in corrections as a deputy jailer in Warren County, said a key problem with the current system is that prisoners aren't equally prepared for life outside prison walls.

Some prisons have 180 hours of programming before a prisoner leaves the facility. Others have far less or none at all. "It has to be uniform," Stonex said.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Louisville Metro Re-Entry Task Force, said efforts to cut prisoner recidivism have to start "the day they enter prison."

Smith, who is on Beshear's task force, said the state should look at getting grant money to expand re-entry task forces across the state. The task forces can help probation and parole officers connect clients with social service agencies, he said.

Smith also helps coordinate a unique project in Newburg. The Louisville neighborhood received grant money to start a community-based re-entry program to help offenders from Newburg who want to return to the community.

The program is a network of local churches and social service providers who supply intensive rehabilitation to ex-offenders who need help finding jobs, a permanent address and a way out of crime, Smith said. So far, about 25 people have participated in the program. It was started with $50,000 in grant money.

Larson's Tuesday morning programs don't cost taxpayers a dime.

After Larson makes his introductions, he tells the people gathered in the room on May 5 that he doesn't want to see them again — at least not in court.

"You have to get your s--- together," Larson said. "Now, how many people are here on drug charges?"

More than a dozen people raise their hands.

"If you have a drug problem, you need to get that taken care of," Larson said.

He then turns the program over to staff from the Hope Center, which has a drug treatment program and other services, and Dismas Charities, a non-profit re-entry program for ex-offenders.

Still, can a one-hour class really make that big an impression on offenders? Larson thinks so.

Larson says he borrowed the technique from retailer Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart puts greeters at the front door as a crime deterrent, Larson said. It's less likely that you'll steal if someone treats you with respect and welcomes you.

"To these people, I am 'the man,'" Larson said. And "the man" just spent an hour talking to them, but not judging them, he said.

Larson and the local Probation and Parole office are looking at expanding their program — possibly using Stonex's model in Western Kentucky.

"We know we can do better," Larson said.