LANDSCAPE REHABILITATION:

LANDSCAPE REHABILITATION: Cass County inmates in the Intensive Rehabilitation Program plant flowers at the east entrance of the Cass County Government Building. Here, John Huff (L), supervisor, works alongside Patrick Buhl and Charles VanSchoyck (R) as they plant some 175 begonias grown at the Cass/Pulaski Community Corrections greenhouse. (Arnold Ernest/Pharos-Tribune)

Patrick Buhl works six days a week for no pay. Instead of a salary, he gets counseling and a chance to be out of his jail cell.

The 47-year-old is a mason by trade, but more recently he has become a self-proclaimed “junior horticulturist,” planting, watering and caring for flowers throughout Logansport and Cass County.

Buhl is one of many offenders paying their debt to society through alternative sentencing programs offered by Cass/Pulaski Community Corrections.

“These programs help offenders get released back into society and be productive citizens,” said Dave Wegner, director of the Cass/Pulaski Community Corrections program since the program’s inception 10 years ago.

Buhl is in the Intensive Rehabilitation Program, also known as the jail work crew. The alternative sentencing is a tool for rehabilitation and accountability.

Buhl has been on the work crew for about a month. He will be sentenced in May. He is charged with maintaining a common nuisance and possession of stolen property, both class D felonies. He was arrested in March when the Cass County Drug Task Force raided a house on Knowlton Street, seizing $3,000 worth of methamphetamine.

Buhl is hoping to be sentenced to work release so he can get help finding a job. The work release program finds employers for inmates who prove they want to change their lifestyles.

“It will make it a lot easier,” Buhl said of becoming employed and transition back into society. Once his sentence has been served, he plans on staying in the community and starting his own masonry company.

“Some of these guys have excellent work skills,” Wegner said of the tree trimmers, carpenters and masons the program has used. “We rely on them an awful lot for projects.”

Many times the types of projects depend on the talent available. The jail work crew generally works from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Numbers of offenders on the jail work crew change week to week, sometimes have more than 10 or as few as two, said John Huff, who is in charge of the work crew.

The inmate must fill out an application. Acceptance depends on the offense. Most of the participants have already been sentenced.

The jobs vary from weed-cutting at Mount Hope Cemetery to mowing at France Park and hanging flower baskets downtown. The inmates also moved the county clerk’s office from the first to the fourth floor, and they work with the Logansport Street Department.

“You name it, we do it,” Buhl said.

They grow all their own flowers in the greenhouse at the Family Opportunity Center near the Cass County Fairgrounds.

The greenhouse is a 30-by-90 enclosure built by inmates. Some 6,000 plants were grown this year. The plants come in plugs in the first week in March and will all be distributed by the end of spring.

“It’s a busy time for us,” said Huff, who manages the community service workers.

Last year, community corrections provided labor to more than 45 organizations, including the Emmaus Mission Center, Goodwill, Logansport Parks Department and Logan’s Landing.

Huff calls the programs a “win-win situation” for the community and the offenders. Community service hours totaled more than 15,000 in 2006 and have been as high as 20,000 in a year.

Judge Thomas Perrone is president of the Cass/Pulaski Community Corrections Advisory Board, which is made up of about 15 people who meet once a quarter to evaluate the programs and make them as effective as possible.

“I think that having community corrections available is a real plus for the community,” Perrone said.

For judges and prosecutors, alternative sentencing provides additional avenues for punishment.

“They’re nice tools to have in the toolbox,” Perrone said.

The programs allow the judge to consider the family of the offender. So, instead of doing more harm to the community by taking away someone who supports a family, Perrone can have them remain productive while still serving a sentence for their crime.

The program is for those who qualify.

“It does not mean the programs are right for everyone,” Perrone said.

Certain offenses, such as violent crimes and child molesting, land offenders in jail every time.

Perrone said the program saves the county money as well. It costs a lot less to place people in a community corrections program than to house them with the Department of Correction.

Wegner has lofty goals for expanding Cass/Pulaski Community Corrections. He would like to turn the back portion of the building at 520 High St. into a work release center that will house 50 to 70 offenders from a several-county region and add more classrooms for more treatment-based programming. The project hinges on receiving a $600,000 grant from the DOC and then approval by the Cass County Commissioners.

The work release center would be a transitional phase of sentencing that would also relieve the population of the Cass County Jail. The facility would include a forensic treatment center where drug addicts could participate in a 90-day intensive substance abuse program. That program would be followed up by placement on a jail work crew then onto work release before transition back into the community.

The work release center would eventually fund itself on user fees from the DOC and individuals. Sentencing would range from a few months to a few years. Seven additional correctional officers would be hired.

“What we’ve learned is in-patient treatment is best for substance abuse,” Wegner said.

In out-patient care, offenders often go back to the same environment that resulted in the offense.

Urine screen results are an indicator, Wegner said. On work release, more than 90 percent of the offenders remain drug free. On probation, 60 percent remain drug free.

Many other communities have similar programs. The work release center in Cass County would be modeled on a similar facility in Lake County. Wegner has had good results from the 10 offenders he sent there. Only one has gotten back into trouble with the law.

“Their attitude is so positive,” Wegner said of offenders who receive treatment.

Exploring the possibility of partnering with Four County Counseling Center. Currently, the Cass County Jail has one full-time counselor. Wegner is in search of funding to add more rehabilitative programs.

“A lot depends on the grant,” Wegner said. “If we don’t get it, we will continue doing what we are doing.”

Wegner expects word on the $600,000 grant this week.

Kevin Lilly can be reached at (574) 732-5117, or via e-mail at kevin.lilly@pharostribune.com

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