New Lake County courts program helps prisoners transition back to life
By Ruth Ann Krause Post-Tribune correspondent May 12, 2012 8:18PM
Updated: June 14, 2012 8:22AM
When Bernice King was released from prison in 2011, she faced an uphill battle.
“I came home to nothing,” said King, whose six children were in foster care and in the process of being adopted. She needed a job and the opportunity to prove that she could follow rules and better herself to regain custody of her children.
Shortly after asking Lake Superior Court Judge Salvador Vasquez to modify her placement in the prison system — a request that was denied — she received a letter from the judge telling her she was eligible to participate in the Lake County Community Transition Court. “I took it as a big opportunity to get back home,” King said.
While there were times she felt like she was being pushed to her breaking point, King said she never gave up. For a little more than three weeks starting mid-May 2011, she lived at Lake County Community Corrections. King quickly landed a job in a grocery store deli, which allowed her to move out on her own with electronic monitoring. She served the last 66 days of her sentence off the monitor but with continued supervision by her caseworker, someone she said was tough with her but fair. She has since gotten a better job with a medical transportation company and has a hearing coming up in Juvenile Court regarding her children.
King, 33, who was sentenced 2010 to three years in prison for dealing in cocaine, followed by four years on probation, is one of the success stories Vasquez points to in the county-wide problem solving court program. Vasquez approached Lake County Community Corrections officials about starting a re-entry court here, which set in motion research and visits to other courts in Indiana when the re-entry court was created one year ago.
The program recently earned a three-year certification after a rigorous review by the Indiana Judicial Center, said Kellie Bittorf, Lake County Community Corrections executive director. The program, which is funded through state and federal grants and user fees from participants, allows inmates in the Indiana Department of Correction to have their placement in the prison system modified through the community transition program. Those inmates can transfer to Lake County Community Corrections, which is part of the DOC, for six months to one year.
Participants may have their parole obligations forgiven if they are successful in the program, Vasquez said. The ultimate goal is to help reduce recidivism by helping them develop a plan to re-enter society. Staying busy looking for jobs and making themselves more marketable to employers figures heavily into many plans.
Sometimes the barrier to a job is a lack of driver’s license or identification. Defense attorney Richard Wolter Jr. volunteers his time to help participants sort out those issues, as has deputy prosecutor Karen Villarruel. Lake Superior Court Magistrate Kathleen Sullivan is Vasquez’s backup on the bench when he’s not available for Monday afternoon Community Transition Court hearings.
‘This is me now’
At a recent session, Vasquez made brief mention of an inmate who went AWOL and was caught six weeks later. Afterward, a steady stream of participants stood at the podium to update the judge on their job or progress they’ve made in finding one. Participants attend court once a week, once every two weeks or once a month.
Those who are unemployed are expected to engage in community outreach where they volunteer at not-for-profit organizations, church groups or other agencies, which occasionally can lead to a paying job. “You may be helping somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody,” said Katie Burkus, problem solving court coordinator.
Burkus said some people who have been in prison for a long sentence need more structure when they first arrive in the Lake County program. Caseworkers work with clients on how to speak to an employer one-on-one when they have to acknowledge they have a criminal history, “but this is me now,” Burkus said.
Clients can get clothes that are suitable for job-hunting and court from closets filled with donations by attorneys and others in the community, including the Just Like New consignment shop in Crown Point. “Not only do they look good in court, but it carries over when they’re looking for a job,” Burkus said. “When you look good, you feel good. It improves your overall image of yourself.”
The volunteer opportunities include First Presbyterian Church in Merrillville, where they sort donations and help move items. Others have moved furniture, cleaned or painting at a building donated to the North Township Trustee’s office.
Between May and December 2011, 34 people were accepted into the Lake County program. One person completed the program but owed fees. Six were unsuccessfully discharged and two dropped out. There were no graduates, but during that time period many of the 34 participants were just a few months into the program, which offers a variety of services that include parenting classes, anger management or debt management.
Vasquez said he anticipates many more success stories like King’s. “We’re not doing them any favors. We’re just giving them the opportunity, but under court supervision,” he said.
King said the overall experience was beneficial for her. “I used the tools that he gave me and I just ran with it,” King said. “He always said he knew I could make it.”