OPINION — After nearly three decades in law enforcement in Iron County, I am encountering something I never thought I would – the sons and daughters of people I arrested early in my career are now being charged with crimes of their own.

One of the most frustrating aspects of every police officer’s job is the heavy rate of recidivism – repeat offenders who come back to jail, time and time again.

Today, however, crime has become an inter-generational problem. Young people are growing up in families where they see no future other than law breaking. It’s how they were raised, by parents who themselves were repeat offenders.

Clearly, a system that produces second- and third-generations of criminals is a system that is broken.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95% of all state residents will eventually be released at some point. In other words, the residents of today will be returned to our neighborhoods tomorrow. We need to do more than simply warehouse them. We need to make them better people.

That’s why I’m so optimistic about IGNITE – Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education – a new program of the National Sheriffs’ Association.

IGNITE is a program concept to give residents the tools they need to better themselves.

Instead of sitting around, day-in and day-out, with nothing to do but wait for their release dates, IGNITE gives residents the opportunity to fill their time behind bars with valuable job training and education.

Five days a week, for two hours each day, prisoners take courses to earn a GED or a high school diploma or take other school programs. College courses are available. Others take virtual vocational courses in plumbing, carpentry, welding or electrical. Still others earn national certifications to work in food and beverage safety. Most recently, a barber school has been established.

With IGNITE, residents have up to 2,500 different program options. IGNITE is open to everyone: whoever wants to take a course can do so. At some facilities, the entire jail population is enrolled in school.

It has been empirically proven that the most effective tool to reduce crime is education. A 2016 Rand Corporation study confirmed that incarcerated persons who get an education while in jail are up to 43 percent less likely to return.

At some IGNITE facilities, community groups have engaged in the effort, helping place IGNITE graduates in gainful employment once they are released.

The benefits don’t flow to the residents only. Jails participating in the IGNITE program report that violence – both resident-on-resident and resident-on-staff – is reduced by as much as 97%. That’s because a bored resident is a far more dangerous inmate.

Importantly, IGNITE uses a meritocracy model with incentives to participate in educational programming and rewards for those who excel. Academic participation earns the resident greater privileges – more time out of one’s cell, for instance, or additional family visits. Sometimes, the reward is as simple as a can of soda pop from the commissary.

Already, the program has helped nearly 600 individuals obtain their GED. Altogether, residents have received almost 600,000 hours of educational programming.

I want to bring IGNITE to Iron County, but we just don’t have the room to do it the most effective way. I want to the make it available to most people possible, in an environment that’s most productive.

Our Iron County Jail, built almost 40 years ago, was built for a far smaller resident population than we now house. Every square inch of space, even the gymnasium and all storage areas, have had to be converted to cells.

An Iron County Jail cell, Cedar City, Utah, Aug. 17, 2023 | File photo courtesy of Iron County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News / Cedar City News

Our existing jail, the oldest in Utah, contains only eight cells where we can house residents on suicide watch and just four booking cells.

Space is so limited that we are frequently forced to release lower-level offenders just to make room for those accused of more serious crimes. Putting low-level criminals back on the street before their sentences are served is not what the courts – or the taxpayers – expect of us.

With the expanded room in a new jail facility, we will be able to do our job fully: no more premature releases because of overcrowding.

Instead of today’s very limited GED program, with more room we can help every resident get a GED who needs one. We will be immediately able to offer a virtual welding or robotics program that will give residents the chance to be 100 percent ready for work upon release.

More importantly, our department will be able to take advantage of programming opportunities like IGNITE that will provide greater safety for jail staff and give residents a real opportunity to improve their lives.

Instead of a dead end, it’s time to turn the Iron County Jail into a U-Turn. It’s way past time incarcerated individuals learn the skills to be productive citizens and stay out of jail for good.

Submitted by Iron County Sheriff KENNETH CARPENTER. Carpenter served in the Marine Corps before joining the Cedar City Police Department. He was named chief of police in Parowan City before his election as sheriff of Iron County in 2018.

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