Fighting crime with steel bars isn’t the only solution in Johnson County.
By JENNIFER BHARGAVA
Special to The Star
It’s about getting to the core of the problem, one offender at a time.
In celebration of National County Government Month, the county held a free event, “Smart Justice: Creating Safer Communities,” at the Youth and Family Services Center on Saturday morning, offering the public a glimpse of its criminal justice programs.
Two dozen exhibits showcased the hard work and progress county officials have made in the past decade toward integrating juvenile and adult offenders back into society with favorable outcomes. The goal of each program is to create positive long-term changes in people whose wrong decisions brought them to the hands of justice in the first place, said Betsy Gillespie, director of the Johnson County Department of Corrections.
Ten years ago, studies began to emerge that proved certain programs and services enforced by justice departments really did reduce crime, she said. So, the county set forth to change people’s lives using positive reinforcement.
The programs focus on everything from strengthening family dynamics to substance abuse rehabilitation. A judge sentences high-risk offenders to one, or more, of the programs, depending on their individual case and background.
“To be able to tailor to a person’s specific needs is huge because each case is completely different,” said Thomas Foster, chief judge for the Johnson County District Court. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution. So, I’ve been really impressed with these programs.”
One of the newer programs, Strengthening Families, focuses on parenting, social and life skills. The county collaborates with Christ the Servant Evangelical Covenant Church in Olathe for the program, which started last September.
“Volunteers from the community come and have dinner with these families and encourage them to have casual conversation,” said Lee Jost, pastor for Christ the Servant. “We stress to parents how important discipline can be and how even small things, like having meals as a family, can make a difference. By strengthening a family’s bond, it can prevent risky behavior in kids.”
He’s been impressed by the success he has already seen and hopes to see the program expanded into Overland Park soon.
“One of our biggest challenges is getting community partnerships because it is the key to our success,” Jost said. “The corrections department has been putting a lot of finances and effort into our program, which is great, but it would be nice to see more faith-based and neighborhood-based organizations get involved.”
Another program that started last year, Moral Reconation Therapy, works to improve offenders’ moral reasoning. It encourages offenders to look at how their life could have been and focus on how to put it back on that track. Assignments revolve around trust, acceptance and healing damaged relationships.
Saturday’s event also revealed how the Internet has changed the course of the judicial system.
The online network Justice Information Management System allows numerous departments, from the Sheriff’s Office to the District Attorney’s Office, to access court records online.
“In most other counties, each department has their own online system and they basically have to e-mail documents to each other,” said Tim Mulcahy, the director of JIMS. “We’ve integrated the system, which enhances communication between departments.”
As a district court judge, Foster has especially noticed how the new system has saved the county time, money and efficiency.
“There used to be floors and floors filled with boxes of files,” he said. “Each year in Johnson County, we have 50,000 cases, with each file containing five to 500 documents in them. Now, all we have to do is press a button to access them or put them in the system.”
Another important online asset to the county is My Resource Connection, a website that provides access and information about every program and service available in the area.
“Many offenders aren’t aware of what resources are available and for a long time many of these organizations or programs were completely underutilized as a result,” said Earl Taylor, deputy director of the Adult Residential Center. “This online network puts everything at their fingertips.”
As the event came to a close, Taylor was pleased by the turnout that came to check out the criminal justice programs on a cloudy day. He thinks it is important that taxpayers realize their hard-earned money is being put to good use.
“We have a great justice system in Johnson County,” he said, with a smile. “We’ve made a lot of strides in the last few years.”