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Hemelt: Second chance could prevent crime victims

It’s easy to say criminals don’t deserve our effort.

Why should they be rewarded with opportunity and caring after they robbed us by force?

I don’t blame a single person who reads news of a re-entry program — like the one announced recently by St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff Mike Tregre — and reacts with disdain at the thought of someone in jail receiving nearly 120 hours of instruction with case management and job placement components.

How many of us law-abiding residents in the working world are afforded such an opportunity at no cost?

However, simply providing opportunities for convicted criminals is not the goal. Preventing criminals from becoming repeat offenders is the aim.

If a local man or woman goes to jail and exits with a real opportunity at gainful employment, then, obviously, there is a better chance the next victim of his or her crime won’t be you. There won’t be a next one.

A successful re-entry program protects law-abiding citizens from dealing with a new batch of criminals every time the local jail sets a fresh crop of people free for time served.

Time will tell if St. John Sheriff’s Office’s Opportunity Now Re-Entry Program graduates take advantage of work readiness, job placement and other self-sufficiency services they received.

Sheriff Tregre seemed confident following the program’s first graduation ceremony in May.

“We’ve got to give these guys a second chance,” he told L’OBSERVATEUR. “I’m willing to bet it’ll work.

“(The inmates) believe that the program benefitted them … they believe that the program was time well spent. I feel real good about this group. I want to see results.”

I want to share in his optimism. I think we all do.

The program seems impressive.

According to Joe Lewis, program director who has established and facilitated Opportunity Now programs across the country, the St. John effort using case management and job placement components make it unique.

He said the key to success comes equal parts from efforts addressing substance abuse issues for participants and case management protocols that help enrollees with necessities such as acquiring a driver’s license once they’re released.

It seems very thorough.

The last time public officials shared such a plan with area residents came last year around this time when St. John District Attorney’s Office leaders shared details of their recidivism effort.

At the time, District Attorney Tom Daley and Assistant D.A. Phil Maples lauded the launch of The St. John Coalition to Combat Recidivism and Impact Lives, which sought to unite community members, organizations, schools, employers and religious leaders in an effort to combat parish crime rates.

Tragically, Daley lost his life early this year following a battle with cancer, Maples no longer works in the parish and many of those who started the effort are no longer part of the program.

At the time of that program’s launch, approximately 600 people were on parole or probation in St. John the Baptist Parish.

A five-person web was designed to offer offenders a mentor, caseworker, social worker, vocational counselor and a diversion coordinator or probation officer.

Partnerships with local churches were a primary component of the employment initiative, and by working at the churches, participants gained a new skill set and were exposed to Christian mentors.

Solid thinking and approach no doubt, but nothing works without follow through.

No one can be sure if the St. John Sheriff’s Office’s Opportunity Now Re-Entry Program will be a success, but we know it’s worth trying.

Any inmate that completes the program will certainly be better prepared to assimilate to life in the real world, as opposed to remaining a criminal simply biding time behind bars.

If that prevents my children or your children from becoming the next victim of violent crime locally, this effort will have been worth the investment.

Stephen Hemelt is general manager and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.