Breaking cycle of recidivism in young prisoners

hcahill@thestate.comJuly 6, 2014 

COLUMBIA, SC A statewide program aimed at curbing recidivism rates among youthful offenders has been producing dividends in its early years, South Carolina Department of Corrections officials report.

The department incorporated the Intensive Supervision Services as a part of the Division of Young Offender Parole and Reentry Services in 2011. The program sought to reduce the rate that youthful offenders 17 to 25 years old return to jail. That rate historically has exceeded 50 percent, marking what the SCDC considered the least successful rate of any age group under parole supervision.

So far, the program has served 1,240 youthful offenders, and of that number, 57 violated terms of their parole – and went back to jail – while 140 others have graduated from the program and reentered their communities. A parole violation, like the failure of a drug test, doesn’t always result in a return to jail but can result in a graduated response such as additional rehabilitation or tracking bracelets.

There are currently 53 intensive supervision officers handling 1,100 cases throughout the state, or roughly 20 to 21 cases per officer.

Intensive supervision officer, Lorri Bennett, who oversees Orangeburg and Calhoun Counties and received the 2014 state Officer of the Year award, said she got involved in the program to see youthful offenders succeed in the community.

“If I can change the way they think or act, then we have won,” Bennett said. “I love what I do. Sometimes, I feel like I’m not working because when you’re out there you’re helping someone.”

Once a youthful offender is assigned to a correctional institute, they receive an intensive supervision officer. That officer helps the offender repair their relationship with the community by enrolling them in community service projects and getting them back in school while taking other steps to ensure they begin a crime free life, including frequent check ins.

Bennett said she currently has 23 cases and has cleared three of the offenders she has worked with.

“The offenders know that when they need help, you are there to help them and even their family members,” Bennett said.

SCDC Director Bryan Stirling attributes Bennett’s success with her graduates to the bond that she forms with them.

“She is in the environment and sees how they are living, who they are living with and sees how they live on a day-to-day basis,” Stirling said.

Stirling said that offenders involved with ISS have a tougher time than being incarcerated because they have to actively participate in their sentence.

“You are held to a standard. That’s why this is harder than being incarcerated, because you can go eat three times a day and kind of do what you want, if you don’t want to participate in programs or you don’t want to work,” Stirling said. “With this, you’re actually required to do things to be successful or you’re going to go back to prison.”

Ginny Barr, director of ISS, said the program is not a substitution for an offender’s sentence, but is rather served as a part of the sentence.

“Its not a program option at the Department of Corrections. The offender is sentenced in court by a judge as a youthful offender and that makes them eligible for the service,” Barr said. “Then we know to initiate Intensive Supervision Services with an intensive supervision officer.”

Barr said in order for an offender to qualify for the service, the offender must be a first-time offender charged with a non-violent crime.

One of those offenders is Terry, a 24-year-old who was charged with third degree burglary, petty larceny and assault by mob – third degree.

Terry, who was arrested when he was 21, said he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a drug deal “went south,” involving a friend who was robbed and punched in the face.

“Whether it’s three seconds or three minutes, I was there,” said Terry. “South Carolina has a hands of one, hands of all rule and it backfired on me.”

Because of the non-violent nature of his crime, Terry qualified for ISS where he met his ISO Steven Little after being held at the Turbeville Correctional Institute.

Little, a former reserve deputy for the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department and pastor, was named the 2014 Officer of the Year for the Midlands region.

He said that his background helps him understand where these offenders are coming from and how to lead them in the right direction.

“It’s a marriage of the two,” Little said. “I have spent my life trying to help people through ministries and I understand the legal system and its processes.”

With Little’s help, Terry completed his first year at Midlands Technical College as a business student and will graduate from Little’s supervision July 15.

Little said the program has made a big difference for the people who are in it.

“A lot of these guys come out with no support, and they would not get out of that boat unless somebody walks with them,” Little said.

Reach Cahill at (803) 771-8305

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