Portage judges try alternative to prison

By Deanna Hohler Bottar Record-Courier staff write Published:

Although the new alternative-to-prison program is based in Trumbull County, it had its origins in Portage County in 1992 and will serve offenders convicted in Portage County Common Pleas Court.

NEOCAP is a community-based corrections facility built to help reduce Ohio's prison population and to give judges an alternative to sentencing some convicted felons to prison.

"The judge's job in sentencing for criminal cases is to punish the defendant for their conduct and to reduce the chance of the conduct being repeated," explained Portage County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Kainrad. "The second part is the hardest part to deal with, which is to reduce recidivism."

When judges sentence convicted felons to prison, they do not know what influences will affect the inmate while behind bars. With the NEOCAP program, judges are kept abreast of inmates' progress through tailor-made counseling and community service programs while serving time at the facility.

Kainrad and retired Judge George Martin worked with the Portage County Adult Probation Department in developing the idea of bringing a state-funded, prison-type program to Portage County residents five years ago.

The county's application for funding was rejected by the state because Portage wasn't large enough to warrant having its own program. The judges discussed a joint-operating program with Geauga County, and a second application also was rejected because the two-county population still was too small.

Kainrad then approached Trumbull County judges, who were interested in the idea. The three counties finally gained approval by the state to start the program on the condition they also include offenders from Ashtabula and Lake counties.

"In this process, it's gotten bigger, adding more to the number of inmates to be placed there," said Bob Fankhauser, chief probation officer for the Portage County Adult Probation Department.

The new facility, which will house 60 male inmates, broke ground in Warren last year and will have its ceremonial opening Oct. 15. Its doors open for inmates, who already have been screened, Monday.

The facility was designed to accommodate future construction to house more inmates, including women. The ultimate goal is to hold 120 people at once.

The program is a "half-way step" between probation and prison, Kainrad explained, but it is in many ways still a prison. Unlike standard state prisons, NEOCAP is run by a judicial corrections board, on which Kainrad sits.

"As judges, we can have an input on what we feel works and then with the probation department afterward to make sure there's not a repeat of the crime," Kainrad said.

Applicants to the program, who are first-time felony offenders who have committed nonviolent first offenses, are screened in the counties where they were convicted by NEOCAP staff before entering the program. NEOCAP also provides services for and works hand-in-hand with adult probation departments.

Inmates in the program can serve up to six months there. Their first 30 days there are considered a "lock-down" period, where staff members analyze what programs will best fit the inmate's needs. Programming will include medical care, drug and alcohol counseling, mental health treatment, education, employment, vocational training and psychological counseling.

Some employed inmates will be allowed to continue working while in the program, Fankhauser said.

After their stay in the program, inmates will be returned to the counties where they were sentenced for follow-up programming _ time in the county jail, home incarceration, a probation sentence or continued counseling. Those who don't complete the program successfully or make trouble while in it can be sentenced to prison.

"Judges are finding that this is an answer to a lot of our problems," Kainrad said of the program, which was designed to reduce the number of state prison commitments, reduce the costs of incarceration in Ohio, make efficient use of limited prison space for serious offenders, provide maximum public safety and reintegrate offenders into the community.

Before the Warren program opened, Portage County judges sentenced candidates to similar programs in Stark, Summit and Mahoning counties.

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