Steve Rose

April 30, 2013

Changing the thinking patterns of criminal offenders sets us apart

Johnson County’s Department of Corrections is one of the best in the nation that helps keep people out of jail by teaching them how to think differently. It is our approach to the management of youth and adult criminal offenders that sets us apart.

When you hear the words “community corrections,” you may immediately think of the jail. It is quite the opposite.

It is the job of “community corrections” to keep people out of jail, if they have committed relatively low-risk crimes. To incarcerate individuals is expensive, can often convert minor criminals into “better” criminals, and it certainly causes anger and resentment by those who have been locked up for long periods.

This may be hard for some to understand or appreciate. After all, when someone steals your car, you want to see them punished, usually meaning being locked up for a long time.

But that attitude is really counter-productive.

And that has been proved right here.

Johnson County is one of the best in the nation in its programs that keep people out of jail, according to Betsy Gillespie, director of Johnson County Department of Corrections. It is our approach to the management of youth and adult criminal offenders that sets us apart.

Gillespie, who has spent 39 years in corrections, claims that the recidivism rate — the rate of repeating criminal activity — in Johnson County is only 4.9 percent for those adult offenders released and who are monitored for a year.

She calls this incredibly low. Gillespie said recidivism rates in the nation can range from 40-60 percent.

What is the magic of our community corrections?

For about the last 10 years, extensive research has been conducted to determine what changes the behavior of those who have committed crimes. This allows community corrections to focus on “evidence based” treatment.

Here’s what they have found works in combination:

Changing thinking patterns (cognitive behavior) is the single most important part of the program. Well-trained specialists break the cycle of crime by teaching individuals who have committed crimes how to think differently.

“Some people have been raised to believe there is nothing wrong with stealing or hurting other people,” said Gillespie. “We now know how to turn these people around.”

While changing attitudes is the most significant part of the program, there is much more.

The staff works extensively together with families and offenders. They teach family members how to work together. They even encourage families to sit down for meals together.

The extensive training of staff on how to deal with offenders is also a key part of the program, and it makes Johnson County unique.

Getting offenders jobs, teaching them how to interview, and education programs are significant components of the program.

When appropriate, six-month substance abuse counseling is also part of treating the offenders.

“The main objective is to reintegrate offenders into the community as successful, productive citizens,” said Gillespie.

Gillespie said the daily population they work with is about a thousand individuals, both adults and juveniles.

Of course, not everyone is allowed in to the community corrections program.

“Some people need to be locked up, because they are a danger to public safety,” said Gillespie.

“It’s just that not everyone should be locked up.”

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