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Stark County's Pretrial Recovery Program Aids Sobriety

Ankle monitoring, drug testing and personal guidance help non-violent offenders maintain employment and avoid reoffending.

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Stark County State's Attorney Amanda Engelstad, left, SWMCC Aministrator Rachelle Juntunen and pretrial recovery program manager Kara Simons.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press
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DICKINSON — For individuals facing non-violent criminal charges in Stark County, a pretrial recovery program launched 11-months ago offers a chance at a fresh start, with daily monitoring, drug testing and personal guidance to help them maintain sobriety, employment and avoid reoffending.

The program , launched by Stark County State's Attorney Amanda Engelstad and Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center Administrator Rachelle Juntunen, is changing lives and giving hope to those who need it most.

For those who qualify, the pretrial recovery program tracks participants with ankle monitors and regular drug testing, and does not require participants to post bond. Eligibility criteria are determined on a case-by-case basis by program manager Kara Simons, with bonds typically ranging from $300 to $5,000 for mostly non-violent offenses.

“There have been some instances where maybe it was like a domestic violence (offense), you know, bar fight or something of that nature that was pretty clearly fueled by an alcohol or drug addiction; and where we have a pretty good idea that if they are maintaining sobriety, violent behavior isn’t going to occur or has very low chances of occuring. Obviously Kara’s safety is our number one priority when we’re trying to recommend people,” Engelstad said, adding that Simons is free to turn down a recommendation if she sees any red flags. “We’re looking at the cases and the defendants individually.”

Navigating recovery

Simons works with a small number of individuals at a time, providing them with daily communication, guidance and support. All participants who have completed the program have found employment, according to the program manager. Violations are handled on a case-by-case basis, with drug testing done through a patch and short-term jail time as necessary. The goal is to provide a balance between accountability and not losing employment because of relapses. She said about 20 individuals have completed the program, with four currently in it.

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“I don’t work with a huge amount of people at once so it’s easy because we have daily communication all day long. It’s almost like mothering,” she said. “They’ll text me, ‘This is what’s going on, what can I do? How can you help me?’ I’ll text them back, call them or go see them in person, whatever the case may be.”

Simons further elaborated on the special bond she shares with these individuals. She said many of them appreciate it when she holds them accountable and asks them why they didn’t meet a certain obligation or show up somewhere they were supposed to be.

“They like that they have that extra someone they can rely on, a pro-social support to help them out,” she said, while also emphasizing the importance of self-sufficiency. “I guide them in the right direction. If they don’t have a ride, I may go pick them up… I might go help them move stuff out of their house, but I don’t do everything for them. I make them invest their time and effort into doing it.”

She said she handles violations as they come. Drug testing is done with a patch that tells them if any substances have been used within the past 30 days. Often she’ll send them back to jail for a couple days while deciding how to address the situation.

“I don’t think it’s beneficial for them to lose employment sitting in jail because they relapsed. So like I said, for everybody, it’s different. It depends on what the infraction was. But I have had to put people back in jail because they had a dirty drug patch,” she said.

SWMCC
The Law Enforcement Center in Dickinson, which houses the Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press

Support for housing, transportation and communication needs of participants is something Simons understands. For those who relapse, inpatient treatment is offered and has been successful. Simons also encourages participation in AA/NA meetings, helping participants find the right fit and support. In addition, Simons addresses the issue of homelessness among program participants in Dickinson.

“I don’t think a lot of people know about the homelessness in Dickinson. Like they just don’t see it so they don’t think it exists, and it is a huge problem,” Simons said.

Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings are a 12 step program, and Simons agrees that groups aren’t for everyone. She offered an anecdote of a young man in her program who was nervous about attending, said he went to one and hated it. She suggested he try a different group that gathers on Wednesday nights. Now he and his girlfriend go there every week.

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AA and NA meetings are held several times throughout the week all over Stark County and the surrounding area. Schedules can be found at aa.org, na.org or the meeting guide app available on the Google and Apple app stores.

Breaking down barriers

Simons and SWMCC staff mentor inmates to prepare for release and navigate life without drugs. Juntunen notes some individuals struggle with poor life choices and re-incarceration. They focus on helping inmates obtain government-issued IDs, which are necessary for jobs, banking, and housing, but can be hindered by lack of address, transportation, or prerequisite IDs.

“If you can’t meet your basic needs, you’re not going to succeed. None of us would,” she said.

Juntunen added that many fall back into self-destructive patterns when they get out and return to hanging out with the same friends or family members who were a negative influence prior to their arrest.

“People typically don’t fail in prisons and jails… They come in and they’re like, ‘I’m going to do it this time.’ And they do really well. They do programs. They seem like they’re set up, like they have every resource wrapped around them. And then they get out and something falls apart,” she said. “So even good intentions go aside… That’s addiction. Relapse is common, and difficult.”

Juntunen underscored the cost savings that have resulted from the program, which she said has totaled about $240,000 over the past 12 months. She explained that it costs $3.25 per day to track someone with an ankle monitor, or $150 a night to house an inmate at the jail. They also spend relatively small amounts on vouchers for participants to get rides to work.

“There’s a significant financial difference between sitting in jail and going in the program, you know, and they’re getting the resources,” she said. “I mean, it seems simple but it’s just a change in what the system is.”

Jason O’Day is a University of Iowa graduate, with Bachelor’s Degrees in Journalism and Political Science. Before moving to Dickinson in September of 2021, he was a general news reporter at the Creston News Advertiser in southwest Iowa. He was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa. With a passion for the outdoors and his Catholic faith, he’s loving life on the Western Edge. His reporting focuses on Stark County government and surrounding rural communities.
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