According to law enforcement officials, a significant portion of violent crime in Winnebago County is committed by a small population of people. The county recently implemented a new program to find those individuals and make sure they don’t re-offend.
The new program is called ‘Partnerships and Strategies to Reduce Violent Crime’. The effort started a few months ago when Winnebago County received a grant from the state.
“It turned into more of a nightmare more than anything,” said Rockford resident Paul Peterson, thinking back to his struggle with drugs and alcohol. “I was just dependent on it, (it) changed my whole mindset on life in general,” he added.
Peterson was exposed at a young age and became addicted. That eventually led to a life in and out of county jails.”DUI’s, driving without a license, and you know towards the end just stealing, just so I could have something to get out of my head,” Peterson said, recalling the over two dozen trips he’s had to jail cells.
However, a few years ago he was given an opportunity to change. “I had the option of taking TIP court and getting out of jail and going on my own,” he said. Peterson soon became involved in the Winnebago County Therapeutic Intervention Program or TIP in 2016.
The court offers non-violent offenders a chance to achieve stability and give them the tools to live life away from the criminal justice system. He also joined the ‘Men’s Life Recovery Program’ at the Rockford Rescue Mission a few months earlier.
“They taught me about my mind and how it works and how to retrain it to where I could think properly, and lose that I don’t care attitude,” he said. Soon after finishing the recovery program at the Rockford Rescue Mission, he landed a job at Rockford Toolcraft.
He spends his nights at the plant welding bailor doors for a major agriculture manufacturer. “I got certified, learned how to weld when I was at a young age. It came in handy later in life,” he said. Now he’s clean and says his goal is to make everyday count. “It’s all about today, it’s what I do with today that counts,” he added.
Peterson’s success is something the Winnebago County justice system hopes to replicate with violent offenders. “We’re trying to identify that small population that’s likely to commit violent crime and try to intervene and deter them from doing so,” said Winnebago County State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato.
The approach is called ‘Partnerships and Strategies to Reduce Violent Crime’, which launched this past February. With the strategy, the county hopes to crack down on those likely to commit gun offenses or those who find themselves interacting with criminals on a regular basis.
“We call those people in and we tell them that we’ve identified you. We ask them to change what they’ve got going on in their life. We even offer them resources,” Bruscato said. Through organizations and resources already offered in the county, leaders of the justice system hope to avoid the revolving door of recidivism.
“But what we also tell them is that if you don’t do it, the criminal justice system is prepared to act,” he said. “That includes the possibilities of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration, because we are not going to allow our community to be at risk of public safety,” Bruscato added.
The county recently received a grant from the state to hire what’s called a ‘Navigator’. That employee works as an intermediary between parolees, their parole and probation officers, as well as social services. The goal is to find previous offenders positive outlets.
“A lot of times these guys, they don’t have any skills, they have very little to no education, but yet were releasing them back into society and telling them, ‘just go ahead and do the right thing’, and they may not even know how to do the right thing,” said Rockford Police Lieutenant Eric Bruno.
“For you and I to fill out an application online might seem like something simple, but for somebody who’s been in prison for 16 years and whose never really done anything like that, those are difficult things,” said R1 Regional Grants Program Manager Marlana Dokken. “It’s even more difficult to admit that you can’t do it,” she added.
So far 10 people are invested in making life changes through the help of the ‘Navigator’. Dokken says it’s already working. “One of them learned while he was incarcerated, he learned that he was really into the idea of being an electrician, so we’ve reached out to the unions, we reached out to Rock Valley College,” Dokken said. “All of them are willing to work with them and all of them have given the parameters,” she added.
“Just know that there’s something out there for you,” Peterson said. He adds that it took him years to make it to this point in his life, but believes it wouldn’t have been possible without the help he received. “If you’ve had enough and you want something different, face that fear, and try change because change is good,” he added.
For offenders who decide to make a change, organizers say it can make a difference beyond their own lives. “We want to provide them with the opportunity, that helps everybody,” Bruscato said. “It saves tax payers dollars, we’re doing the right thing by giving people a chance to be successful in the community, it relieves the burden on the criminal justice system,” he added.
“If we don’t help them and if we don’t teach them another way to do life, the only way that they know is their old way of life. That’s not something anybody in the community wants,” Dokken added.
Winnebago County social service agencies who have partnered with the program include The Fatherhood Encouragement Project, Celebrate Recovery, and the Rockford Rescue Mission.