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Published: Saturday, 5/31/2008

Preserving family ties

THE trend in law enforcement for many years has been to get criminals off the street and behind bars - fast and for as long as possible. Though that's still a focus, and a legitimate one in many cases, we are pleased that Lucas County has a program aimed at reducing recidivism of inmates by strengthening family bonds through prison walls.

The program, Returning Home, helps inmates regain touch with family life they left behind, improving chances they will succeed in the unfamiliar outside world after they are released.

For two years since it began, Returning Home has united inmates and their families, addressed parenting, education, employment, and communications skills, and provided counseling for children.

Nine months before their release, inmates visit with their children three hours weekly in informal settings that help prisoners begin to feel like parents again and not strangers about to suddenly intrude on their children's lives. The settings also help children begin to warm up to their incarcerated parent.

Run by Lucas County Alternatives to Street Crime Inc., Returning Home takes only low-security risk, nonviolent offenders who have minor children.

It is funded with a $218,453 grant from the Governor's Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Similar efforts are being established nationwide, and no wonder. Out of 2.2 million prisoners incarcerated throughout the nation, 1.4 million have children, and nearly 60 percent have children under age 10. Michigan has a similar program called the Prisoner Re-entry Initiative.

Besides guiding inmate/parents, these programs aim to steer their children from lives of crime and work to break generational cycles in which members of the same family tend to wind up in prison. In Ohio alone, a stunning 58 percent of juvenile offenders have a parent among the 50,000 state prison inmates.

The cost for each family's participation in Returning Home is $5,000, a price tag that seems nominal given the cost of putting an inmate back behind bars, or the cost of additional crime that might be committed by a recidivist. Incarceration of a low-risk felon, for example, costs the state $24,500 annually.

Of the first 31 inmates in the program, seven got into trouble with the law again, and four of these may be going back to prison, adding up to a success rate approaching 90 percent.

That's an admirable record for a strategy that engages and benefits former inmates, their spouses, children, and - in the end - all of society.

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