Positive Impact turns Lake County offenders' lives around

2013-08-25T00:00:00Z Positive Impact turns Lake County offenders' lives aroundBy Susan Erler susan.erler@nwi.com, (219) 662-5336 nwitimes.com

CROWN POINT | Supervisory skills come naturally to Charles Blacknell, but he had little opportunity to use them, until a few years ago.

Blacknell spent 20 years in prison until his 2005 release, when he was placed in a transition program through Lake County Community Corrections.

There, he was introduced to the Positive Impact curriculum by Mark Murphy, who is Community Corrections director of operations. The program helps convicted offenders become acclimated to life outside prison.

"Once I was in the program, (Murphy) helped me tremendously," Blacknell said. "He helped me transition back into society."

Community Corrections is under the authority of the Indiana Department of Correction. Most counties in the state have the program.

Blacknell advanced so well he was offered a job as supervisor of a detail which transports Community Corrections clients to their jobs in Gary.

"I love being a boss," said Blacknell, who at 48 had always worked for somebody else.

He also appreciates being able to give back to a program that helped him.

"That's one of the reasons I accepted the job, to help individuals that are in the situation I was once in," Blacknell said. His role is a little like being a substance abuse counselor, he said. "If you haven't been in the trenches, you aren't as effective. I've been in the trenches."

The Positive Impact program Blacknell took part in is one of a number of ways Community Corrections works to help offenders move into real life, said Kellie Bittorf, department executive director.

Work release and day reporting, which typically involve electronic monitoring, are the two largest programs in a department funded by about $2.5 million annually from the Indiana Department of Correction.

Other funding comes from several smaller federal and state grants and from participants themselves, who pay a daily $15 fee, Bittorf said. 

The court orders offenders and those leaving prison to go to Community Corrections programs.

"It's not an option," Bittorf said.

Most participants are sentenced by the court directly to Community Corrections, while others, like Blacknell, enter through the Community Transition Program after serving time in prison, officials said. 

At any given time, Lake County Community Corrections has about 300 people in its population, Murphy, the director of operations, said. Of those, between 90 and 120 are on day-reporting, a form of intensive supervision usually involving electronic monitoring.

Another 180 or so are in the Kimbrough Work Program. Participants live in the Kimbrough Center, a supervised residential facility in Crown Point, and work outside.

Community Corrections typically does not take violent offenders. First-time offenders are more likely to be accepted, Bittorf said.

"The judge makes ultimate decision," based on risk assessment and other materials, Bittorf said.

"Everybody's circumstances are different. It depends on the offense and the criminal history."

The program is focused on risk and need.

"If (a participant) is in need of employment, of education of finance skills, all are identified," Bittorf said. Each is assigned a case manager.

"Planning starts on Day One," Bittorf said. "We want them to leave here employed, with an education, with better family relationships and better life skills."

Working toward a GED is mandatory for those lacking a high school diploma. Also mandated is a cognitive program to redirect thinking about consequences of actions.

"The ultimate goal is to not re-offend," Bittorf said.

The Lake County program has a lower rate of re-conviction than other counties' programs, said Lake County Superior Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak, a member of the Community Corrections advisory Board.

For Blacknell, the program succeeded.

"Without this program it wouldn't be the same," Blacknell said. "Guys who did 10 to 15 years (in prison), they lost a lot when it comes to their mindset. To just stick them out in the world, they're going to be lost."

"You need a program like this for individuals to survive," Blacknell said. "The most important thing is to believe in yourself."

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