By Lesley Weidenbener
PLAINFIELD, Ind. – Gov. Mike Pence is seeking to reduce recidivism rates that now top 35 percent with a new program designed specially for inmates new to the prison system.
Gov. Mike Pence announced Thursday that the state will create a program aimed at keeping first-time inmates from returning to prison once they’re released. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com
Pence said the First Time Offender Program will be the only one of its kind in the nation and will segregate up to 1,000 new inmates from more hardened prisoners while plying them with character-based programming and mentors.
It’s open to low- to moderate-risk offenders with sentences of three years or less who don’t have mental health and medical problems that require placement in specialized units. Violent offenders will not be allowed into the program, state officials said.
“We hope the first time will be the last time these inmates come to the Department of Correction,” Pence said during a visit to the program’s home – a prison in Plainfield that has been renamed the Heritage Trail Correctional Facility.
But despite the program’s name, it won’t be limited to inmates who’ve never committed another crime, but instead to those coming into the Indiana prison system for the first time. Inmates previously sentenced to county jails or to alternative programs for misdemeanors or even low-level felonies could be eligible. So too might inmates who have served time in other states, DOC Commissioner Bruce Lemmon acknowledged.
The goal is to increase the chances that those inmates won’t reoffend when they return to their communities. Currently, the Department of Correction releases roughly 20,000 inmates annually. About 35.8 percent of ex-offenders return to prison within three years, a rate that increases to 60 percent when they are unemployed.
Indiana Department of Correction Commissioner Bruce Lemon, center, said a new program for first-time offenders will help reduce recidivism rates. He was joined by Gov. Mike Pence, left, and David Burch, the superintendent of what is now called the Heritage Trail Correctional Facility in Pendleton. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com
“We are struggling not only with cycles of poverty and dependency,” Pence said. “But we are struggling in our communities across Indiana with cycles of recidivism that are tearing at the fabric of our neighborhoods, tearing at the fabric of our families.”
By Friday, 88 men will have moved into one unit of the prison, which is now being used to prepare inmates near the end of their sentences to transition back to communities. Eventually, though, the state will use the entire, sprawling prison grounds for first-time inmates.
The functions of the existing short-term offender program now housed at Plainfield – which Lemmon said has been “very successful” – will now be handled at individual prisons.
GEO Group – a private contractor – will continue to run the facility. Superintendent David Burch said inmates will participate in two key programs – Purposeful Living Units Serve, called PLUS, and Thinking for a Change, a cognitive behavioral program.
PLUS is used to some degree in most Indiana prisons and is a faith and character-based re-entry initiative. Inmates are taught core values that focus on positive reinforcement through learned behavior.
In the first-offender program, mentors will live with inmates and model that behavior. The mentors will be inmates who have successfully completed the program elsewhere and nearing their release dates. Lemmon said community volunteers and staff will also be used to provide other programming related to addiction recovery, family and social support, civic engagement, education and employment.
“First time offenders ought to be dealt with in a way that is focused on reformation,” Pence said. “When inmates make a poor choice and are sent to a state facility, we don’t want that to be a place where they can learn to make the wrong choices in life. We want it to be a place where they go and are immersed in better choices.”
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.
The story has been corrected from its original version. The new first offender program is housed at a prison in Plainfield, Ind. TheStatehouseFile.com regrets the error. To see all our corrections, go to http://thestatehousefile.com/info/corrections.