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Eddie Butler has been booked in the Lucas County jail 297 times since 1987. Arrested repeatedly through the years as a drug-addicted homeless person, he has been to jail more times than any other offender in the county.
When the National Institute of Corrections released its assessment of Lucas County’s pretrial services in October, 2013, a problem population came to light: Repeat offenders like Butler who clog the jail daily.
Data from the sheriff’s office showed that just 6 percent of the jail’s offenders — a total of 996 people — accounted for nearly a fifth of the bookings.
The group includes people who were brought to the jail three or more times in the year, often for nonviolent misdemeanors.
Butler’s record, for example, includes countless charges of panhandling, public intoxication, drug possession, and disorderly conduct, with a few more serious offenses thrown in.
At the request of the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office and Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, more than 40 representatives from jails, prisons, courts, and a variety of community agencies met at the end of March to map out the gaps in assistance for offenders with mental illness and co-occurring disorders, such as substance abuse.
Projects targeted at repeat offenders through intensive case management and prescription medication provisions are under way, but after only a few months, there is little data to measure progress.
“These folks are cycling in and out of the courts so fast, nobody can catch up to them,” said Scott Sylak, director of the mental health board.
At 53, Butler is what the courts refer to informally as a “frequent flier” for his many arrests. On average, he was in jail for five days at a time.
Suffering from a crack addiction, alcohol abuse, and untreated schizophrenia, he spent years sleeping at the Cherry Street Mission or St. Paul Community Center, in condemned houses, and on empty porches. For a while, he occupied an abandoned car, leaving him with frostbite during some of the coldest winters.
“Every time I turned my life around, I looked for money to buy some crack,” he said.
Under the requirements of a federal court order from 1987, the jail releases people booked for nonviolent misdemeanors after giving them a court date, but Butler failed to appear in court 222 times.
Don Trapp, an analyst for the National Institute of Corrections, stated that Lucas County’s repeat offenders drive up the failure to appear rate, creating an inordinate workload for the police, jail staff, and court officials. In 2012, 88 percent of the failures to appear were for people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors.
“People who live quite chaotic lives have very little motivation to not do what they’re doing, and it’s no surprise that they don’t follow through,” Mr. Trapp said. “We call it a life sentence on the installment plan, a little bit each month.”
According to Kevin Helminski, the sheriff’s director of finance and operations, the process of evaluating offenders when they are booked and, if needed, turning them over to medical staff means that it is much more expensive to check someone into the jail than to supervise them once they are there.
It costs $149 for the booking process, even if it is completed in an hour, and a per-minute charge that adds up to a taxpayer burden of $144 for each of the following days of incarceration.
Early signs of trouble
Butler’s trouble with the law started early, when he was a child in Mississippi.
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At 9, he added a “0” to a $5 check a neighbor had given him for mowing her lawn.
At 15, he was expelled from Scott High School in Toledo for fighting another student, and at 18 he was kicked out of the Jobs Corp for fighting again.
By his 20s, he was using crack, and when he could no longer do odd construction jobs, he became a panhandler and a robber.
Suspects charged with misdemeanors who have multiple outstanding bench warrants can be placed in one of 43 pretrial beds in the jail instead of being released, according to Lt. Jim Williams. Both arresting police officers and judges can request that an individual be held, if space permits.
Once in jail, inmates are privy to a host of daily services organized by jail counselors, ranging from narcotics anonymous meetings to religious sessions.
Though people with special needs are flagged at the point of booking, individual counselors are limited in the assistance they can provide. Their support ends once the person is sent to trial.
“As soon as they walk out the door, it’s out of our hands,” counselor Karl Schwemley said.
To more effectively link inmates to outside services, staff from Treatment Accountability for Safer Communities, or TASC of Northwest Ohio, also meet with offenders, especially those with mental health issues.
With several new hires last spring, TASC has four case managers in the Lucas County jail. Regular counselors refer inmates to TASC as needed, resulting in each staff member assisting between five and seven people on most weekdays, according to case manager Candida Noftz.
TASC’s goal is to remedy the underlying factors of a person’s recidivism.
“Once a person exits that jail, they’re either going out to their old habits or where they’re hanging out, under a bridge or in the mission,” TASC Executive Director Johnetta McCollough said.
Two one-year grants from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services are helping TASC streamline its services for repeat offenders. Since May, TASC has started to use $134,000 in Community Innovations funds to target the two-thirds of the top recidivists who have a history of mental health issues; a specialized code appears on the electronic files of the approximately 660 people listed in 2013 to ensure that they meet with case managers.
An additional $220,000 in Community Transition funds will allow TASC to provide intensive case management outside of the jail for up to 60 days to follow up with inmates in need of additional support, some of whom are on the list of repeat offenders.
This involves calling them to make sure they know about their mental health appointments, and even driving them there if need be. At present, these are still pilot projects that will be renewed only if successful.
“The ball’s in their court. We can walk beside them, and we can guide them, but we can’t do it for them,” Mrs. Noftz said.
Beyond the courts
The courts are not blind to Eddie Butler’s relapses. After he was convicted of a felony in 2011, Judge Stacy Cook sent him to the Correctional Treatment Facility instead of to prison.
By his account, he has been at CTF three times, and at community mental health and substance abuse treatment centers about 17 times.
Judge Cook said Butler’s felonious assault was the result of him touching the arm of an off-duty police officer while panhandling, and the only other felony charge on his record is a robbery from 1989.
Still, knowing his long criminal record, she placed him on five years of probation, which is only now nearing its end.
New grants for the county — such as a probation improvement and incentive grant of $776,645 from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections and the partly federally funded Second Chance Act of $833,294 — are intended to reduce incarceration rates and aid with re-entry.
For a six-month period prior to release from several state facilities or the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio, these individuals with mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or risk of homelessness will meet with case managers.
“Building that relationship before they get out increases the chances that they’ll follow through,” said David Kontur, chairman of the Reentry Coalition of Northwest Ohio.
A host of services are available to offenders, whether they are released from jail or prison. The coalition and the Adult Parole Authority organize a program called Going Home to Stay on the first Wednesday of each month so that ex-offenders can hear quick presentations from community agencies.
Volunteers from about 30 groups discuss employment, housing, substance abuse treatment, educational opportunities, and health-care assistance.
Toledo resident Rashaud Johnson, 21, who came to a session in July, said he has been in jail multiple times, though never for more than seven days.
Usually, he said, he was “talking smack” to the police, though his most recent conviction was for assault. He lost a job at the YMCA after three weeks because his employer pulled up his record, and finding another job is difficult without a birth certificate.
Still, he came to the program to get his driver’s license reinstated and to ask about getting his record expunged. He is determined to stay out of prison.
“I planned on cleaning my life up,” he said
For people who refuse help, keeping them out of the jail proves difficult.
“If somebody’s coming through this system 100 times, we can’t put them on probation and provide them with treatment every time they come into court,” Toledo Municipal Court Judge Timothy Kuhlman said. “At some point you have to say we’ve tried; we’ve got to stop wasting our resources on this person. He’s not responding. And so we just put him in jail for whatever period of time is appropriate.”
Yet Judge Kuhlman, who heard many of Butler’s cases through the years, also runs a re-entry docket to help people clear outstanding fines and warrants. He assists about 25 people a month, and he knows there is no simple answer to help recidivists stay out of jail.
Butler credits his current sober spell in part to the support of people such as attorney Phillip Browarsky, who represented him in court for free the last few years, and attorney Linda Jones, who helped him reobtain Social Security disability insurance on the basis of schizophrenia, depression, and borderline intellectual functioning. Judge Cook helped him find a group home, and he still calls her office each week to check in and to ask how she is doing.
Their efforts to help Butler failed for many years because “I didn’t want the help at the time. I was stubborn,” he said. Being near death as a result of pneumonia during the winter caused his current period of reform. He hasn’t been arrested since October.
“People do relapse, and if they have services available to them, sometimes they get up,” said Aaron Nolan, Lucas County jail’s director of inmate services.
“Sometimes they never will. It’s just the hard cold reality.”
Contact Maya Averbuch at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6522.