In Licking County, Ohio, a Corrections Strategy That Offers Counseling, Art Classes, and Mindfulness Training

For people with substance use disorders, day reporting can provide a safe environment and a space for counseling or treatment.
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A 2014 study of day reporting in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, found that participants in the program were less likely to reoffend than those in traditional carceral programs.

A 2014 study of day reporting in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, found that participants in the program were less likely to reoffend than those in traditional carceral programs.

Read our year-long investigation into the addiction crisis plaguing Rust Belt America.

A bell dings and the dozen or so men and women tucked around a large conference table in a newly renovated warehouse in Licking County, Ohio, fall silent.

"Take a deep breath," Chris Ramsey says, "let the air fill up the body and let it go."

Everyone present, save for Ramsey and a volunteer, is on probation, for crimes ranging from drug possession to trafficking or theft. They are here to participate in a day reporting program, an alternative to jail or prison that "provides rehabilitation for offenders through intensive programming," as it's described in the Federal Probation journal.

As part of their probation terms, they come here five days a week for 12 weeks, to take classes related to parenting, mental health, trauma awareness, art, education, writing, and recovery. Unlike traditional probation, where a person meets with a probation officer who refers them to social service agencies, day reporting brings those services together under one roof. For people with substance use disorders, day reporting provides a safe environment and a space for counseling or treatment. The treatment strategy began in the mid-'80s, in response to the prison crowding problem plaguing the United States, according to Federal Probation: Day reporting centers "were envisioned to offer enhanced supervision and provide a wide range of treatment services to the offender." That means, for everyone gathered here, participating in this breathing exercise isn't just about stabilizing their mental health; it's also a means to freedom.

"Thoughts arise," Ramsey says. "Recognize them but come back to the breath."

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Licking County's day reporting program began in November of 2017. It was the brainchild of Scott Fulton, the head of the county's adult court services. Fulton applied for a grant from Ohio's Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison program, an initiative meant to bolster statewide alternatives to traditional incarceration. The goal was simple: "We're trying to divert people from jail or prison," Fulton says.

There's relatively scant research into day reporting's effectiveness; what is available presents a mixed bag. A report exploring community corrections by The Vera Institute, a public policy think tank, notes that this is because programs around the country differ so much from each other. For example, many participants in Licking County's program are referred by probation officers because they have violated the terms and conditions of their probation and could be on their way to jail or prison. Likewise, some people in the program are drug court participants, while others are people on judicial release after prison.

Fulton, however, sees plenty of signs of encouragement. To wit, a 2014 study of day reporting in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, found that participants in the program were less likely to reoffend than those in traditional carceral programs. (It also saved the county money.) Another sign of encouragement: Twenty-four of the 84 people admitted into Licking County's program last year were ultimately discharged. (Thirty-seven graduated, and 17 are still enrolled.)

"If you asked me if a person is more stable, has a better understanding of themselves and is prepared to address their issues after completing day reporting as compared to a person that is on traditional probation and did not complete day reporting. I would say, 'Yes,'" Fulton says.

Fulton's hope is that this program will provide participants with work and life skills that will, he hopes, keep them from coming back. He also wants to make the program interesting so that participants stay engaged. Local social service agencies have helped create new programs and Fulton has gone out of his way to recruit teachers who can incorporate art and meditation and mindfulness. On one visit, participants are taking a parenting class taught by a social worker; on another an English professor is teaching them poetry.

Fulton says that the stakes are high, and the need to pivot crucial. Most, if not all, participants face serious time if they fail. And most, if not all, participants are in recovery from methamphetamine or opioid abuse. Some are beginning medication-assisted treatments like suboxone or Vivitrol.

Recently a graduate died from an overdose. He had been a pillar of the program, someone who stopped by even after he graduated.

Everyone here knows what they face when their 12 weeks are up, Fulton says. "For a lot of people, the day reporting program is the beginning."

Outside Ramsey's class, a train whistles by; the rumble of its cars fills the room. Still the group does not stir from its collective reverie. "Take a few breaths," says Ramsey, who, with his close-shaved head and white goatee, looks like a Zen master. "Notice the sensation in your body. Breathe in deeply. Together exhale."

This mindfulness exercise, according to Ramsey, is about focusing on the self, letting everything else fade away, becoming present. There is much that people here need to let go of, he says. That's why he begins many of his GED classes with a meditation; he wants to help people shift their focus before they begin to study.

"Before you open your eyes, set your intentions for the day, and then express a little gratitude."

One by one, around the circle, each person says what they're grateful for: family, sobriety, parole, Ramsey's class.

"I'm grateful that I'm graduating," says Summer, a young woman with a shock of blonde hair and ink running the length of her arms. This Friday, she reminds everyone, she will have completed her 12 weeks. The announcement is greeted with a round of warm applause.

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After 15 minutes, the class takes a break and most folks head outside for a quick smoke. On her way out, Summer plops down in a chair in front of day reporting director Michele Hamman's desk. The problems facing people in this program here are big—trauma, substance use disorder—and seemingly small—say, the reinstatement of a driver's license. Michele, a former Army officer who now works as a probation officer, is here to help participants deal with both kinds of problems.

Michele and Summer discuss her life after graduation—the tangibles like employment and the intangibles like who will help support her when she stumbles. Michele tells her that it's the bonds people create with one another that really engender their future success.

Michelle is convinced that what's happening here in day reporting is special, that they are building a support network that will extend beyond the program, a community to support program graduates like Summer.

"[People in day reporting] bond with each other because they've had similar experiences," Michele says.

At this, Summer chimes in: "We call each other out!"

Read our year-long investigation into the addiction crisis plaguing Rust Belt America.

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