Getting back on track with Citizen Circles

Circles include representatives from YSU and the Adult Parole Authority.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Ex-offenders have a new way to get help with the creation of Citizen Circles.
The circles provide opportunities for partnerships and promote community safety.
The Mahoning County Citizen Circle meets at Youngstown's Metropolitan Baptist Church, 351 W. Rayen Ave., the third Monday of every month.
The main focus of the Citizen Circle is to help those released from correctional institutions make the transition into the community and provide a safe, positive environment for the offender and their families. The circle also opens its doors to anyone in crisis.
The circle creates an environment of acceptance and focuses on the offender's personal strengths. It also creates partnerships that promote positive social interaction and accountability.
Citizen Circles, offenders and their families develop relationships with the community and devise a plan for transportation, housing and employment. Together, they aim to help the offender become a productive citizen.
Offenders apply for help, accept responsibility for criminal behavior, perform community service and set goals with help from the community members in the circle.
"People are willing to accept offenders back into the community as they are committed to being good citizens," said John Geras, the entry coordinator for the Akron Adult Parole Authority.
There were 900 ex-offenders in Youngstown on parole as of March. According to current figures, 60 percent of these offenders will commit another crime within the next three years and return to jail.
"They're here; there's tons of people with felony convictions. We have to do something. They have to go somewhere, and we don't want them to return to their old ways," said Geras, who used to work with an APA office in Youngstown.
The circle gives the ex-offenders a network of help that they may not have had a chance to build on their own.
"They haven't had a community partnership that was stable," Geras said. "We teach them what the community defines as good citizenship. We help them to become that provide the resources."
Mahoning County's Citizen Circle was created nine months ago. The first several months were spent training and educating citizens in the circle. They have been helping offenders for about four months.
The circle is comprised of community volunteers who want to help and includes representatives from Youngstown State University, the APA, Help Hotline and Catholic Charities.
"We don't dwell on the past; we can't change that," Geras said. "But we can help the future."
The seven domains the circle focuses on to help ex-offenders are employment, family, social interactions, substance abuse, community functioning, personal/emotional orientation and attitude.
In 2001, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections adopted a new re-entry philosophy, which was to provide opportunities for offenders to successfully connect as productive members of society.
Rehabilitation starts the offender's day of entry. The new slogan for ex-offender re-entry is "Re-entry means going home to stay."
The new goal is to make sure that everyone who is released from a correctional institution will become a productive member of society and avoid old criminal acts.
Ex-offenders often seek out churches for acceptance, so the Citizen Circle is partnered with several faith-based organizations. They are not, however, a religious group.
The APA refers some ex-offenders to the circle. Some ex-offenders come because they wanted to get help on their own.
Open to all
The circle is not only for ex-offenders. It also tries to help people in need before they have to resort to crime for solutions.
Everyone in the community is invited to attend the circle. To become a member, there is a full day of training.
"Anyone in crisis in the community can come and we'll try to help them," Geras said. "This is relatively new, but it's doing very well. We're definitely on the right track."
The first circle was created in Mansfield two years ago, and there are 19 in Ohio with plans for several more.
Trumbull County has had a Citizen Circle for almost one year and has been helping ex-offenders for about seven months.
"The community needs to coordinate and open doors," Geras said.
The next circle to start helping ex-offenders will likely be Canfield, he said.
The APA is currently targeting urban areas due to transportation.
"We will set up rural citizens' circles if the need and want arises," Geras added.
The next Mahoning County circle will be from 10 a.m. to noon July 18 at Metropolitan Baptist Church.
There will be an open house for the Trumbull County Citizen Circle on Sept. 29 at 309 N. Park Ave.
To become involved with a Citizen Circle, contact the Akron Regional Parole Office at (330) 643-3010.

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