Reentry in Ohio Corrections: A Catalyst for Change

Reentry in Ohio Corrections: A Catalyst for Change

Wilkinson, Reginald A


In 2002, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) published The Ohio Plan for Productive Offender Reentry and Recidivism Reduction. The document listed forty-four recommendations designed to contribute significantly to the development of a reentry transition system that providing a seamless service and program delivery beginning at sentencing and admission to prison through confinement to discharge from parole or post-release control. As part of this process, DRC redefined its mission and vision for reentry to emphasize continuity in service provision during and after incarceration, and the inclusion of the community in the reentry process. It embarked upon a journey to ensure that reentry means “Going Home to Stay.” In addition to The Ohio Plan, DRC has embraced far-reaching and innovative reentry-oriented initiatives. This article reviews the major reentry initiatives that have been implemented by DRC through and subsequent to the adoption of The Ohio Plan.


In recent years, criminal justice policy makers and scholars have recognized that an emphasis on prisoner reentry is essential for the reduction of recidivism and the successful assimilation of returning offenders back into their communities (Mauer & Chesney-Lind, 2002; Petersilia, 2003). Initiatives have been undertaken throughout government to ensure that correctional agencies and communities work together in responding to prisoner reentry (see for example, La Vigne, Mamalian & Travis, 2003; La Vigne, Thomson, Visher, Kachnowski, 9 Travis, 2003 or Visher, La Vigne, & Travis, 2004). More than four years ago out of intense concern that not enough was being done to prepare adult offenders to return home as contributing members of their communities, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) launched a comprehensive reexamination of offender reentry.

Prisoners returning to the community confront a multitude of issues. Nationally approximately 600,000 inmates return to the community from jails and prisons – many of whom return within a short period of time. In Ohio approximately 39% of offenders released into the community return within three years (Bureau of Research, personal communication, April 5, 2005). Frequently, these offenders return home with educational and employment skill deficits. Nearly 30% of offenders in Ohio have mental health issues, and approximately half have suspected learning disabilities (La Vigne et al. 2003). They are less connected to the community and, consequently, have difficulties finding housing and reconnecting with families (La Vigne et al. 2003). Most of those returning to the community from which they were sentenced suffer from substance abuse, face mental health issues, and are not linked with community service providers. A 2004 Ohio Intake Study reported that over 70% of incoming inmates had an indication of a history of drug abuse (Bureau of Research, 2003). Similarly, an analysis of recovery services participants revealed that just over 14% required intensive outpatient services (Recovery Services, 2004).

In an effort to respond to inmates’ reentry needs in Ohio, numerous initiatives have been pursued by DRC. Some have been prompted by the availability of Federal grants like the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) administered by the U.S. Department of Justice. Most are a result of DRCs resolution ‘to get it right’ with regard to contributing to safer communities, and making sure that ex-offenders are better off at the time of release than at the time of their admission to prison.

This article describes the initiatives established by DRC as part of its effort to implement a coordinated systems approach to offender reentry. The article begins with a brief overview of The Ohio Plan for Productive Offender Reentry and Recidivism Reduction (2002). A review of the most salient reentry initiatives introduced over the past four years is then presented. Many initiatives, though not all, involve collaboration with community partners and providers.

The Ohio Plan

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction responded to the national concerns being raised relative to reentry by calling for the formation of a broad-based Reentry Steering Committee in 2001. This committee, in turn, provided guidance to six Reentry Action Teams. The Reentry Action Teams were charged with examining reentry practices from multiple perspectives and formulating recommendations consistent with Ohio’s newly emerging reentry philosophy. The reentry philosophy is based on the belief that police, courts, institutions and community corrections all have a role in creating significant, long-term rehabilitative change for offenders. This philosophy assumes that criminal justice agencies cannot create long-lasting change for offenders without the inclusion of the family, community-based service providers, and the faith community.

The Ohio Plan contains forty-four recommendations for major changes in DRC policies and procedure. The recommendations encompass six major areas: offender assessments and reentry planning; programming; family involvement with release; employment readiness; discharge planning; supervision; and community partnerships. As part of The Ohio Plan, DRC adopted a new vision, mission, and slogan reflective of Ohio’s emphasis on reentry as a philosophy.

Vision of Reentry

Ohio’s system of reentry will provide opportunities for offenders to successfully connect as productive members of society. Through active partnerships with all stakeholders, reentry will contribute to safer communities and an enhanced quality of life.

Reentry Mission Statement

The Reentry Initiative is a holistic and systematic approach that seeks to reduce the likelihood of additional criminal behavior. Beginning at sentencing and extending beyond release, reentry will assess, identify and link offenders with services specific to their needs. This will be accomplished through associations with community partners, families, justice professionals, and victims of crime.

Slogan for Reentry: Reentry means ‘Going Home to Stay’

Reentry Initiatives in Ohio

Significant progress has been made toward the implementation of the forty-four recommendations from The Ohio Plan. DRC has implemented a series of policies and procedures and established collaborative partnerships with numerous public and private agencies to assist released offenders with adjusting to the community by meeting educational, employment, mental health, substance abuse, and familial needs. Four strategies have been applied relative to implementing The Ohio Plan:

1) The establishment of policies and procedures within correctional institutions that a) determine upon admission “What is needed to prepare this offender for successful reentry”; b) ensure that subsequent programming addresses criminogenic needs; and c) include familial and community-based partners in programming prior to the offender’s release back into the community.

2) The development of community-based reentry programs that link offenders with services, prevents reoffending through additional targeting of criminogenic needs upon release, and incorporates the family and community.

3) An expanded commitment to increasing DRC collaborations with other agencies to develop a seamless and successful transition of offenders from prison to the street.

4) A long-term focus on conducting research to evaluate the effectiveness of reentry efforts.

Reentry Initiatives Established Within Institutions

Institutional Policy Changes. As Ohio’s reentry plan emphasizes an approach that begins at the offender’s admission into the department, implementation efforts started initially inside the institutions. The first step occurred when DRC changed its assessment and institutional planning protocols to reflect the inclusion of Reentry Management Teams (RMT), and Reentry Accountability Plans (RAP). RMTs, which are a multi-disciplinary team comprised of DRC staff, have primary responsibility for developing, monitoring, and updating RAP for offenders who are classified as reentry intensive (or high risk). RAP is an individualized case plan designed to identify and target the offender’s risk and needs areas through appropriate institutional programming.

Upon admission to DRC, work begins on the development of a RAP for all offenders. As part of RAP, the new inmate is first screened for risk and needs. The needs assessment includes an evaluation of seven dynamic needs – employment/education, marital/family, associates, substance abuse, community functioning, personal/emotional, and attitude. Upon completion of the static and dynamic assessments, the RMT (for reentry intensive cases) or case managers and other staff (for reentry basic or lower risk cases) make recommendations for areas to be targeted through institutional programming during the offender’s period of incarceration. These programming needs must be addressed prior to release.

For released offenders requiring intensive supervision in the community there is an additional reentry phase. Community Reentry Management Teams (CRMT) provide continuity in services for reentry intensive cases, while parole officers provide case management and supervision for those cases classified as reentry basic. The CRMT team is comprised of Adult Parole Authority staff, the Offender Services Network, and community service providers. The team is responsible for connecting offenders with services and monitoring compliance with programming within the community setting.

Central Office Reentry Program Oversight Committee. To ensure that institutional programming targets dynamic needs, DRC established a protocol stating that only those programs incorporating the principles associated with effective correctional interventions could be included as part of the RAP. Effective programs include the following components. They: 1) target one or more of the seven dynamic needs; 2) include elements of community justice; 3) draw on theory or research; 4) show adequate training and credentialing of staff; 5) offer a structured design; 6) demonstrate clearly stated criteria for admission, exclusion, and discharge; and 7) include an evaluation plan.

DRC designated the Central Office Reentry Program Oversight Committee as the body to review and approve programs as qualifying for RAP recommendations. The committee classifies programs into three levels. Level one programs are Core Reentry Programs and constitute “Best Practices.” The level one programs are mandatory programs designed to target criminogenic needs. Level two programs are called elective reentry programs. The elective reentry programs are not mandatory; yet, such programs are still designed to meet criminogenic needs. Programming which does not address criminogenic needs are considered discretionary, and may be operated at the local site (e.g., smoking cessation). They do not count as reentry approved programs.

Reentry Operations Manual. Given the complexity of the reentry process within institutions, full implementation of the offender reentry assessment and planning policies requires that institutional staff be well versed in the vision, mission, and goals of reentry. Staff must have direct access to material that answers their questions regarding the assessment and planning process. With this in mind, DRC developed and distributed a reentry operations manual titled Offender Reentry Planning: A Staff Guide in June 2004.

Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI): Community-Oriented Reentry Program (CORE). DRC was awarded a $2 million reentry grant under the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative in 2002 to collaborate with the Departments of Mental Health, Job and Family Services, Education, the Office of Criminal Justice Services, the Office of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, Community Connection in Alien and Franklin Counties, and the Department of Justice Affairs in Cuyahoga County to develop a communitybased reentry program. The target population for CORE is approximately 200 offenders who have served at least twelve consecutive months and who are between the ages of 18-35. CORE aids these serious violent offenders in finding stable housing, receiving substance abuse and mental health treatment in the community, sustaining long-term employment, and reunifying with family members upon release.

The first phase of CORE is completed upon admission to prison or twelve months prior to release where inmates receive a comprehensive needs evaluation preliminary to the development of a reentry accountability plan (RAP) is developed. In the second phase, programming based on dynamic needs is provided to the offender prior to release from the institution. It continues in the community in Phase 111. Programming may include any of the following: educational programs; release preparation; offender job linkages; mental health services; recovery services; or victim’s services. A Reentry Management Team (RMT) reviews the reentry accountability plan at least six months prior to release, and ensures that recommended services are made available to the offender. Phase III is community-based. To ensure continuity in care, the released offender is assigned a community reentry coordinator. The community reentry coordinator is someone who has served as a member of the inmate’s RMT in the institution, works for the local community grant partner, and has knowledge of the offender’s progress and compliance with the reentry accountability plan during incarceration. With this knowledge, the community reentry coordinator facilitates service delivery by linking the released offender to services available in the community that meet needs identified during incarceration.

Children of Incarcerated Parents: Breaking the Cycle. Recognizing that familial relationships suffer during incarceration and that families may need help in breaking the cycle of crime, poverty, and inadequate parental abilities, the Children of Incarcerated Parents: Breaking the Cycle initiative was implemented in 2004. DRC received $3M from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) grant administered by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services to pilot “Family Life Centers’ inside Dayton, London, and Richland Correctional Institutions. The “Family Life Centers” provide parenting and family services to offenders before and after release. Family members are encouraged to participate in prison-based programming and receive wrap-around services from three community agencies: Talbert House (Hamilton County), the Center for Families and Children (Cuyahoga County), and Alvis House (Franklin County).

Offender Job Linkage (OJL) Program. Most prisoners experience difficulties finding employment when released from prison. Recognizing that finding and keeping employment is often problematic for returning offenders, DRC designated the OJL program as a core reentry program. The OJL program was created in 1995 prior to the release of The Ohio Plan, but is consistent with the reentry mission. The program is designed to address the employment needs of offenders who will soon be returning to the community by establishing employer-employee connections while the inmate is incarcerated with community follow-up. The program includes release preparation programming, employment interviews prior to release by video conferencing within any of the thirty-one institutions, and community job fairs. To improve the chances of forging employment connections for released inmates, DRC administers the Federal Bonding Program (FBP) for the state. The FBP provides a $5,000 fidelity bond as incentives for businesses to hire ex-offenders. In addition, the program offers work force development workshops designed to educate potential employer partners with information regarding employer incentive programs, as well as the career technical, apprenticeship, and the Ohio Penal Industries (OPI) offered to offenders while incarcerated.

Community Linkage Program. The challenges faced by returning offenders are magnified when the offender has been diagnosed with a mental illness. Continuity in care is mandatory for such offenders to successfully make the transition home. In 1995, DRC implemented the Community Linkage program. The Community Linkage program reflects a partnership between DRC and the Ohio Department of Mental Health (ODMH) forged to provide a continuum of care for offenders with mental illness entering prison and returning to the community. Ten Community Linkage Social Workers work within prisons to link offenders to the community mental health system upon release. The social worker prepares a community linkage packet 30-90 days prior to release containing mental health information, including diagnosis, medications, medication compliance, treatment regimen, and response to treatment and forwards this to the Community Mental Health Center. The social worker then arranges an appointment for the offender at the local Mental Health Center in the city where the inmate is expected to return two weeks before release. In addition, on the day of release a 14-day supply of medication is provided along with a reminder of the appointment at the Community Mental Health Center. Transportation to the Community Mental Health Center may also be provided by DRC in select cases.

Community-Based Reentry Initiatives

For reentry programming to be effective, efforts begun in prison must be reinforced through community-based initiatives. The community-based programs utilize existing resources and services in the community. Each initiative seeks to promote collaborative partnerships that enhance service delivery within the community. DRC’s community-based initiatives are designed to provide structure, accountability and support to offenders released back into the community.

Reentry Courts Partnership. Ohio was selected as one of nine states to implement a reentry court program. The reentry court is a collaborative effort between the Richland County Common Pleas Court, DRC and the Adult Parole Authority and was implemented on January 1, 2001. The reentry court concept is based on the model for drug courts and entails intensive supervision and close case management. The court is designed to manage the return of the offender to the community, using the authority of the judge to apply graduated sanctions and positive reinforcement and to garner resources to support the prisoner’s reintegration (Maruna & LeBel, 2003; Petersilia, 2003). This is a yearlong program that is based upon a reentry contract. The contract lists the conditions the offender must follow. It requires that the participant appear in court once a month before a reentry court team consisting of the judge, parole board-hearing officer, probation or parole officers, and community treatment providers. The judge and parole board hearing officer monitor the offender’s progress and enforce the conditions of the contract through the use of graduated sanctions for failure to comply.

Citizen Circles. In 2003, the Adult Parole Authority collaborated with DRC institutions, and community members to implement Citizen Circles. The Circles represent a variation on the model of restorative conferencing. Restorative conferences are defined as “… an encounter in which stakeholders in a crime come together to discuss how to repair the harm caused by an offense, following a finding of guilt and/or an admission of responsibility by one or more offender” (Bazemore, 2000, p. 235 ).

Citizen Circles provide an opportunity to ensure accountability on the part of the offender and repair the harm done to the victim and the community by involving local providers and citizens in a restorative process. Members of the circle meet and develop a reentry plan that allows offenders to acknowledge and make amends for the harm caused, links them with community services, and reintegrates them in a more supportive format. These plans often include provisions for addressing substance abuse or mental health issues, education, employment concerns, housing, peer support or community service. The Citizen Circle meets on a regular basis to review the offender’s progress, adjust reentry plans, and discharge offenders who participate in the program. To date, 19 Citizen Circles operate across the seven Adult Parole Authority regions.

Akron Ohio Adult Parole Authority (APA) – Youngstown Office Weed and Seed Program. This is a multi-agency collaboration between the Youngstown Adult Parole Authority Office, Youngstown Police Department, the Youngstown Metropolitan Housing Authority and the Community Corrections Association. The program was implemented in February of 2000. The “weed” portion of the initiative focuses on reducing crime in the Southside through increased law enforcement efforts. Eight APA parole officers worked with the police department on the Southside in conducting saturation patrols and making offender home visits during non-traditional working hours. The “seed” strategy focused on the provision of services to offenders under supervision within in the community in the heart of the Southside. A community APA office was opened in the Southside target area and staffed by three APA officers. The officers were charged with supervising 240 offenders residing in the Southside area and were required to work non-traditional hours, attend block watches, and host community meetings. The Lima Adult Parole Authority operates a similar program in Toledo.

Forensic Assertive Community Treatment-Forensic (ACT). The transition of the seriously mentally ill back into the community has been enhanced through the creation of ACT. This program targets the seriously mentally ill offender released under supervision in Cuyahoga and Hamilton Counties. DRC and local Community Mental Health Board’s in the participating counties provide funds to support a Forensic Act Team. Each team is comprised of a psychiatrist, a psychiatric nurse, three community case managers, and a parole officer. Prior to release, the Community Forensic Act Team works with prison mental health staff and the inmate to develop a specific treatment plan to be applied when the offender is released into the community. Once the offender is released into the community, the Forensic ACT Team provides intensive support services such as linking the ex-offender to benefits, finding stable housing, helping with employment, and the provision of clinical services. ACT members are available to provide services 24 hours a day.

Interagency Steering Committees

Offenders returning to the community need to reestablish themselves as community members, but often face significant barriers to adjustment that result in a return to crime (Petersilia, 2003). Corrections departments are often ill-equipped to handle all of the barriers surrounding the release of offenders to communities having high concentrations of social problems. These communities often experience economic and social isolation, a lack of social service agency access, high rates of health and substance abuse problems, and homelessness. The solution to such release barriers requires a holistic response extending beyond the boundaries of DRC. As Taxman, Young, Byrne, Holsinger, and Anspach (2002) report, criminal justice agencies cannot address these barriers alone and must engage the family, community service providers, the faith community and other community-based organizations in the quest for successful reentry. In response to the need for multi-agency collaboration, DRC has taken steps to develop and participate in interagency steering committees. Steering committees are designed to engage families, community organizations and the justice system in monitoring and assisting with prisoner reintegration (Petersilia, 2003, p. 199). Currently, DRC provides leadership and guidance across four interagency steering committees targeting reentry.

The State Agency Offender Reentry Coalition. The Coalition was formed in 2004 to provide inter-agency collaboration and support on key issues pertaining to offender reentry in such areas as legislation, programming, policies, technical assistance, and the dissemination of information. The committee is lead by DRC representatives and includes participation from the Departments of Mental Health, Education, Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, Alcohol and Drug Addictions Services, Job and Family Services, Public Safety, Aging, Health, Youth Services, Board of Regents, the Office of Criminal Justice Services, and the Office of Faith-based and Community Services. The committee takes an activist approach to reentry-actively seeking a multitude of state agencies for participation in the reentry process. ODRC Family Council. The Council is comprised of various state agencies, family members, non-profit and inferfaith members, and family counseling practitioners who help to support offenders returning to the community and aid in family reintegration. Members of the committee are actively involved in developing institutional and community-based initiatives to prepare the offender and family members for release. Many of the committee members are participating in the Family Life Center Pilot program. The Council seeks to implement programs and strategies that will help to reduce the impact of incarceration on the family.

Community Justice Cabinet. Community justice focuses on the development of partnerships between victims, offenders, local organizations, and criminal justice agencies. Programs associated with community justice provide support for victims, stress accountability and acceptance with offenders, and recognize that it takes a community to reintegrate offenders. The Community Justice Cabinet is comprised of DRC staff, criminal justice professionals from other agencies, and representatives from local community agencies. The Cabinet provides oversight and guidance to community justice programs. In Ohio, community justice programs typically involve the offender, the victim, and the community in a process designed to repair the harm caused by the crime. Several examples of such DRC programs include Victim-Offender Dialogues, and Victim Awareness Classes.

Citizen Circle Steering Committee. The Citizen Circle Steering Committee is comprised of members of the Adult Parole Authority, DRC, academics, the faith community, and other representatives from the community. Committee members are charged with oversight of local Citizens’ Circles. The committee is designed to create a sense of shared ownership among community partners over the Citizen Circle process and serves as a central resource unit for those in the community wishing to find out additional information regarding the Citizen Circle process. In addition, the committee maintains a web page providing information on the current status of Citizens’ Circles in Ohio.


The Ohio Plan reflects a strong commitment to implementing effective correctional programs. The ‘what works’ literature has identified the components characteristic of effective programs such as targeting criminogenic needs, considering adequate dosage, and providing behavioral treatments to name a few. Programs exhibiting these characteristics are only effective to the extent that they maintain program integrity and show research findings supportive of program effectiveness. DRC is committed to assessing the level of support for its reentry programs. To date, DRC participates in two federal research initiatives, and is conducting several assessments of reentry programs on its own through the Bureau of Planning and Evaluation.

Returning Home. Ohio was selected by the Urban Institute as one of its sites in a multi-year, multi-state research study designed to document the reentry process and the challenges facing prisoners as they are released and return home. In November 2003, the Urban Institute released A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Ohio (La Vigne et al., 2003) representing completion of its analysis of the reentry process in Ohio. The report documents the extensive release needs of prisoners returning to communities in Ohio.

The Urban Institute has followed-up this report by interviewing 400 soon to be released inmates returning to the Cleveland area. A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Ohio focused on reentry from a systems perspective, the second study seeks to document the reentry experiences of offenders after returning back to their community. The study seeks to explore offender perceptions of Ohio’s reentry process.

As part of the “Returning Home” research project, the Urban Institute conducted an exploratory study to assess the process of return for inmates with serious medical and mental health needs (Visher, Naser, Baer, & Jannetta, 2005). The researchers conducted in-depth one-on-one interviews with prisoners, focus groups of prisoners and service providers, and a post-release survey to assess the needs of released offenders returning to Hamilton County, OH. The report indicated significant barriers upon release for seriously medically and mentally ill offenders returning to the community. DRC, through the reentry initiatives described in this report, is making significant progress towards bridging the gaps in service delivery for released inmates with medical and mental health problems.

Serious Violent Offender Reentry Initiative. Ohio’s CORE grant was selected as one of the grant sites to participate in the national evaluation of SVORI programs. The Urban Institute and Research Triangle Institute began conducting the evaluation in July 2004.

The evaluation is designed to answer four key questions ( 1. To what extent did CORE lead to more coordinated planning and integrated services among partner agencies?; 2. To what extent did reentry participants receive more individualized and comprehensive services than comparison subjects?; 3) To what extent did reentry participants demonstrate better recidivism, health, and personal functioning outcomes than comparison subjects?; and 4) To what extent did the benefits derived from reentry programming exceed costs? To answer these questions, the research team will conduct an implementation assessment and an impact evaluation of the CORE program. The research is expected to conclude in 2007.

Summary and Conclusions

A rich assortment of reentry initiatives has been introduced in Ohio. Many other improvements can be expected in the next few years as some programs move from the conceptual planning to the implementation stage. Numerous funding sources have been tapped into to support these programs. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the challenges of reentry. Reentry needs vary across offenders and communities. Specialized reentry programs sponsored by the state and private organizations within communities have vital roles to play. In this regard, much is to be said in favor of programs that are reflective of partnerships with community organizations, as evidenced in Cleveland and Cincinnati’s reentry efforts.

Ohio’s experiences show that successful reentry initiatives depend upon successful collaborations. The many stakeholders-departments of correction, jobs and family service agencies, mental health boards, faith-based and charitable organizations, among others-must build partnerships that coordinate efforts in ways that deliver effective services to offenders returning to the community. Teaming multiple service-providers across multiple human-service agencies can create opportunities for the successful reentry of ex-offenders back in to the community where “reentry” means ‘going home to stay.’ It is far too early to make any assessment of current initiatives in Ohio. Evaluation studies are forthcoming. However, one clear benefit already apparent from the implementation of the initiatives is the increased awareness and interest by criminal justice agencies outside DRC, other government agencies in Ohio, non-profit organizations, and community and faith-based organizations in addressing the myriad issues associated with returning offenders in a new and innovative ways.


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Biographical Sketches

REGINALD A. WILKINSON, Ed.D., is Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC). In addition, Dr. Wilkinson serves as President and Executive Director of the International Association of Reentry. He is also Past President of both the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the American Correctional Association.

EDWARD E. RHINE, Ph.D., is Deputy Director, Office of Policy and Offender Reentry, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. In this capacity, he also serves as the Director of the Ohio Institute on Correctional Best Practices. Dr. Rhine’s career has included leadership and management positions in both juvenile and adult corrections.

MARTHA HENDERSON-HURLEY, Ph.D., is a Social Science Research Specialist for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. Prior to working with DRC, she was an Assistant Professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

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